Credit freezes now are free

Almost half of Americans, including me, were victimized last year when our personal information may have been exposed in a data breach at credit bureau Equifax.

It was like being stranded naked on the 50-yard line of a crowded football stadium. You wondered how many people were looking at you, but there was little you could do to cover yourself.

We feared we could be exploited by crooks, with our names and information being used to apply for credit cards or loans, not to mention being sold over and over to other identity thieves. And when we tried to do something to protect ourselves, by freezing our credit, we were told we’d have to pay to do that.

That was discouraging and offensive.

Why should we have to pay the credit bureaus to freeze our own credit? Why should the industry profit from an inexcusable mistake by one of its prominent members?

A year later, Equifax hasn’t paid enough for its blunder that may have exposed the data of nearly 148 million people. But its breach prompted Congress to change the system and prohibit credit bureaus from charging for freezes.

A law took effect Friday that requires freezes to be free. There also cannot be a charge to temporarily lift a freeze to apply for credit or have your credit checked.

While Equifax offered free credit freezes — it initially charged for them but relented amid criticism that it was profiting from its error — after the breach, the other two major credit bureaus, Experian and TransUnion, continued to charge fees. The amounts varied and were set by state laws. The cost to most Pennsylvanians was $10 for a freeze and $10 every time you wanted to temporarily lift it.

That’s not a lot of money, but it could add up. If those fees discouraged you from freezing your credit, you don’t have to worry about the cost anymore.

It’s wise to freeze your credit even if you haven’t been the victim of a data breach. And let’s face it, we never really know if we have been. New breaches are announced all the time, sometimes long after the breach happened.

A credit freeze, sometimes referred to as a security freeze, can protect you from identity theft by prohibiting new creditors from accessing your file at the credit bureaus. That makes it unlikely for a new card or loan to be issued in your name because the lender couldn’t determine if you are a reliable payer.

Freezes don’t prevent all identity theft, though. Someone who has your Social Security or credit card numbers, birth date or other information still could try to use it to file fake tax returns in your name to collect a refund; apply for a job or government benefits; or ring up charges on your current credit cards.

So you must continue monitoring your statements and watching for signs that your information might have been used.

Remember that a freeze prohibits someone from checking your credit. So if you’ll be applying for a loan or credit card, or renting an apartment or doing something else that requires a credit check, you have to temporarily lift the freeze to allow that.

Under the new law, if you request a freeze online or by phone, the freeze must be placed within one business day, according to the Federal Trade Commission. If you ask for the freeze to be lifted, that must happen within one hour. If you mail a request to start or lift a freeze, the action must be taken within three business days of your request being received.

You have to freeze your credit with each credit bureau individually. Here is their contact information:

Equifax:, 800-685-1111.

Experian:, 888-397-3742.

Transunion:, 888-909-8872.