After learning that Target fumbled away our Visa card numbers and Buck Consultants put my wife’s Social Security number on a live web page, I thought it was time to mount a defense against potential identity theft. But I didn’t know what to do.
So I contacted digital security expert Brian Krebs, who was kind enough to provide some excellent advice: Freeze your credit files.
I didn’t even know you could do that. Both Target and Buck offered us free monitoring of our credit files – the credit history stored in databases at Big Three credit bureaus Experion, Equifax and TransUnion. But Krebs pointed out that someone could pull your credit file and ding your credit score even while you’re being monitored. You’d find out about it more quickly, one would hope, but monitoring wouldn’t prevent it from happening.
Freezing your credit file does.
I works like this: Contact the credit bureaus via their “freeze centers” (here for Experian, here for Equifax and here for TransUnion). Follow the instructions (and be prepared to answer a few personal questions), pay a fee of about $10, and you’re frozen.
From then on, if some entity wants to pull your credit file, or check your history to see if you can afford utility services or a car loan, they will have to get your permission first. The credit bureaus will call you and ask if it’s OK to lift the credit freeze, and for whom it should be unfrozen. Then, after an agreed-upon period of time, the freeze is put back in place.
After going through this exercise, I learned of one other service. Experian told us it had removed our names from their “pre-approved credit offer mailing lists” that they apparently sell to businesses. I hate getting those offers in the mail, and so I was thrilled that Experian had put a stop to it (although I am not thrilled they were making money off of my credit-worthiness to begin with).
In my opinion, every person’s credit file should be frozen by default. But that’s not the way it works; the credit system is set up for the convenience of the lending community, not the American consumer.
Now more than ever, caveat emptor.