Just as the holiday shopping rush begins, all three of the major credit bureaus have decided they will provide consumers with a powerful tool to protect themselves from identity theft.
Within the last month, Equifax, Experian and Trans-Union began offering consumers the option of freezing their credit reports.
A security freeze is so much better than a "fraud alert," which is what consumers are typically advised to secure when they are either victims of identity theft or think their information has been compromised.
A fraud alert simply tells potential lenders that they need to take extra care and certain steps before granting credit. The alert doesn't block access to your files, so it's not foolproof.
With a security freeze, lenders and businesses cannot get access to your credit files or your credit scores without your authorization. This means they aren't likely to issue new credit. That in turn greatly reduces the chance that a thief will be able to get credit in your name and damage your credit profile.
Until now, if you wanted to freeze your credit reports, you had to live in a state where the practice was allowed. Laws in 39 states and the District of Columbia have given consumers that option. However, four of those states - Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, and South Dakota - only allowed a security freeze if a consumer was the victim of identity theft, according to Consumers Union, which has been following this issue and tracking the introduction and passing of security freeze legislation.
For details on security freeze laws, use Consumers Union's "Guide to Security Freeze Protection" at www.FinancialPrivacyNow.org. Consumers Union has compiled a detailed list of each state's law, including when and how you can lift the freeze. The site also provides direct links to the three credit bureaus' security freeze information. Just be sure to double check with each bureau when placing a security freeze to make sure you are sending the right information.
To implement a freeze, you will have to send a certified letter to each of the three major credit bureaus. The security freeze will remain in place until you request that it be permanently removed or temporarily lifted for a specific time or for a particular creditor or company.
Experian enables consumers to lift the freeze within 15 minutes by making a request online or by phone. Equifax and TransUnion allow consumers to lift the freeze by phone or by mail, but the request can take up to three days from the date of receipt to go into effect.
Also be aware that a security freeze generally does not apply to your existing accounts. Existing creditors or affiliate companies can still access your files.
There is a catch to this security freeze protection - the cost.
In Kansas, the three credit bureaus will provide a freeze free of charge for identity theft victims. Victims also will not be charged to lift the freeze. For everyone else in the state, there's a $10 fee for each bureau to initiate a freeze and $10 to lift it temporarily or remove it altogether.
In all, that's $30 to place a freeze on your credit files at all three bureaus. If you need to apply for credit later, you have to pay another $30 to unlock your files for a lender. If you don't plan properly, you would have to pay $30 each time you want a creditor to view your credit files.
Consumers Union is pushing to get the credit bureaus to charge all consumers in all states no more than $5 to initiate and temporarily lift a security freeze and no fee to remove the safeguard altogether.
Considering the recent spate of lost and stolen data on millions of consumers, Congress needs to mandate that everyone be allowed to initiate a security freeze at no charge. After all, we know identity theft is a huge problem. Various private and government surveys find that consumers can spend hundreds of hours and dollars trying to undo what an identity theft has done.
Making this protection free could save everybody - consumers, companies and law enforcement officials - a lot of money and aggravation.