The massive Equifax® data hack put the social security numbers, birth dates, addresses, and, in some cases, driver’s license numbers of almost half the adults in America into the hands of cyber criminals. That’s just about everything a crook needs to apply for and potentially obtain a loan, credit card or even a mortgage in your name.
My personal data was hacked and so was my wife’s, according to the Equifax website. Our company attorneys told me I shouldn’t “recommend” or “advise” consumers on what to do. Instead, I’m simply going to tell you what I did and why. Remember, I’m not an attorney or a cyber security expert. I’m just a guy who’s been in mortgage lending for 30 years. Beware – what I did took some time, but I decided I didn’t have a choice.
The short story is that I concluded credit monitoring was not enough. Yes, I enrolled my wife and myself in LifeLock®’s standard monitoring program to the tune of about $9.50/month per person, but that’s like having a great alarm system. It tells you a burglary is in progress or has already happened, but it doesn’t keep the burglar from creating a mess. I decided we had to freeze or lock all three of my and my wife’s credit records. This required a visit to all three credit bureau websites (Equifax®, TransUnion® and Experian®) and completing the freeze/lock process six times. Three times for me and three for my wife.
Why six enrollments and not just one?
When a lender checks your credit, we get a “merged” credit report that accesses data from each of the three major credit bureaus for both borrowers, if you’re applying jointly with another person. You might assume, incorrectly, there’s one bucket of credit data if you see a copy of your joint merged credit report, but it’s really six separate data files merged into one report. To freeze credit, you have to go the source – the individual person’s record at each of the three credit bureaus.
What if you’re applying for a mortgage (or any kind of credit)?
If you freeze your credit data like I did, you’re going to have to unfreeze/unlock it when you want to apply for credit. The mercenaries at Experian charge a fee, which varies by state, for both freezing and unfreezing your credit identity unless you provide a police report to confirm your credit identity has been compromised (they must not have the internet to know 143 million people’s credit identities have been hacked).
I decided it wasn’t worth the hassle to get the police report to avoid the $10 per person fee at Experian. Locking and unlocking is free at Equifax, as you might expect given they caused the whole problem, and TransUnion is free, too, for monitoring, locking and unlocking (see details below). That’s classy in my book.
What about children and older parents?
A lot of children have social security numbers, but I doubt if any of the credit bureaus have them on file, because unless they’re college age, it’s not likely they’ve applied for any credit. I could be wrong. Older parents on the other hand, many of whom are not internet savvy, are another story. I’m not sure of the legalities of initiating freezes for them online. They may have to call each of the three credit bureaus (toll-free numbers below).
Step 1 – Equifax®:
I went to www.equifax.com and clicked on their big orange button, and then I clicked the link on the next page for “Potential Impact.” By providing the last six digits of my social security number (kind of hard to put that information into their website given recent events, but I didn’t have much of a choice) and my last name, the site confirmed my personal information “may have been impacted by this incident.”
I then clicked on the orange “Enroll” button and completed the “TrustedID Premier®” enrollment page with my individual information. Once enrolled and logged into the TrustedID portal, all I had to do to lock my Equifax credit record was click on the giant padlock icon. Mission accomplished (for the first of six enrollments). To enroll my wife and lock her Equifax credit data record, she completed the process a second time.
Initially, there was major concern that enrolling in Equifax’s free one-year TrustedID monitoring program would nullify your ability to take legal action against them. Equifax has now updated their web site language making it clear that enrolling “does not waive any rights to take legal action.”
Equifax is offering their TrustedID Premier free to any American consumer for one year. I’m not sure what we’ll do in a year. We’ll likely have to go through the standard “freeze” process. The site does NOT request your credit card information to enroll, and the Equifax site clearly states they will not automatically continue your enrollment after the free first year by charging a credit card. Their dedicated toll-free number is 866-447-7559.
Step 2 – TransUnion®:
TransUnion gets an A+ in my book. I went to www.transunion.com and clicked on the blue-green “My FREE Identity Protection Button.” They didn’t have to make their Identity Protection product/service free (they didn’t have a data breach), but here I am writing an article on the topic and telling everyone TransUnion gets an A+ and is the coolest of the three bureaus. Way to go, TransUnion.
TransUnion’s monitoring product is called TrueIdentity®, and just like Equifax, once I completed the enrollment process for myself and then my wife completed hers, all we needed to do to lock each of our credit files was click on a giant padlock.
I just tested the “unlocking” capability and it too was super easy. All I had to do to unlock was click on the giant padlock and confirm I wanted to unlock my TransUnion credit report. The site said it would only take five minutes to unlock my data. Unlocking is what you would need to do to apply for a mortgage, credit or any loan. It’s pretty simple. And did I mention it’s free with no apparent expiration date? Well done, again, TransUnion. Toll-free number is 877-322-8228.
Step 3 – Experian®:
Unlike their A+ competitor, TransUnion, Experian’s home page attempts to coax you to “Start for Free” with their credit monitoring product. It’s free for 30 days and then “just $19.99 a month!” Per person, that is. I decided that wasn’t a good deal for me. Finding their security freeze page wasn’t exactly easy either (see the link below). It’s under the “Credit Report Assistance” tab on the home page.
Unless you go to the trouble of filing a police report regarding your stolen credit identity and uploading the police report with your freeze request, the nice folks at Experian charge you $10 per person to freeze your credit, and $10 per person to unfreeze it when you want to apply for a loan. The $10 per “freeze/unfreeze fee” varies by state. In the four states in which Accunet lends, it’s $10 per person, per freeze or unfreeze in Wisconsin, Illinois and Florida. It’s $5 per person, per action in Minnesota.
Also, the first time I tried freezing my credit at Experian, using my Apple® iPad®, Experian’s site told me I wasn’t eligible to freeze my credit online and that I would have to send my social security number, birth date, address, copy of government ID plus a utility bill, bank or insurance statement in the U.S. Mail or overnight delivery. Alternatively, I could upload the documents to their website. Luckily, when we tried on my laptop, we were able to freeze our Experian credit data. UPDATE: the upload address Experian provides on some of their web pages to upload the documents needed to freeze credit did not work. Here’s the link I found for uploading documents.
All in all, Experian gets a “D-” from me for trying to coax scared people into “free” credit identity protection for only one month and then charging to freeze and unfreeze credit. Toll-free number is 888-397-3742.
Putting a Fraud Alert on your credit report
I chose not to take this step because I was tired from the freezing enrollment. My thinking was that if I froze my credit and my wife froze hers, at all three bureaus, no lender would ever see a fraud alert unless I unfroze my credit first. Putting a fraud alert into your credit record would be an extra layer of protection, but I didn’t think I needed to.
There you have it – the excruciating details of how to freeze your credit if you decide you want to do what I did in light of the largest consumer financial data breach…so far.