Pittsburgh — So far this year, more than 100 data breaches have resulted in an estimated 153 million financial records being stolen — hitting big names such as Experian, T-Mobile, Anthem and U.S. government personnel records — with most of the victims being offered free credit monitoring services as a check against ID theft.
But a new report by the Washington-based consumer group U.S. PIRG says credit monitoring isn’t nearly enough. The group is urging all consumers to consider freezing their credit reports as the only way to stop ID thieves from taking out loans, credit cards and other credit accounts in victims’ names.
“Whether your personal information has been stolen or not, your best protection against someone opening new credit accounts in your name is the security freeze,” said Mike Litt, consumer program advocate at U.S. PIRG. “Credit monitoring services may tell you (about a fraudulent account) but only after you’ve been victimized.”
When a freeze is in place, credit bureaus are prevented from releasing a file to potential creditors without the consumer’s permission. Because most businesses won’t open credit accounts without checking a consumer’s credit history, ID thieves are locked out.
There are drawbacks to consider, including fees, which vary by state; some limitations; and the potential for delays when consumers legitimately want to apply for credit. People must lift freezes if they want to apply for mortgages, car loans, credit cards or other type of credit.
A thaw can be activated online or by phone using a personal identification number and choosing the number of days that the thaw applies. It can be a general thaw or apply only to a specific creditor.
There is no fee to permanently lift a freeze, which automatically expires in seven years.
Victims of ID theft who provide a police report can freeze and thaw their files at no charge, while people 65 and older can initiate a freeze for free but must pay $10 for a thaw.
For the broadest protection, experts recommend that consumers freeze their credit reports with all three main credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — because a freeze request with one doesn’t extend to the others. Experian said it froze 433,558 files through October this year, up from 160,639 in all of 2014.
A consumer applying for credit who wants to temporarily lift a freeze should find out which credit bureau the lender is using to assess creditworthiness and request a thaw from that particular bureau.
In most cases, a report can be thawed within 15 minutes. But since the law allows credit bureaus up to three days to lift a freeze, shoppers could be blocked from getting instant store credit — the kind that promises a discount of 10 percent or more for signing up for a credit card at the register.
Freezes also could interfere with other products and services that may require a credit check, such as getting insurance, renting an apartment, hooking up to a utility or opening a cell phone account.
The U.S. PIRG report noted that neither credit monitoring nor a security freeze can detect or prevent unauthorized use of existing credit accounts or other types of fraud or identity theft such as theft of tax refunds or medical services. Many banks and credit card companies have mechanisms in place to detect existing account fraud and remove unauthorized purchases.
For more information, visit www.identitytheft.gov. To download the U.S. PIRG report, visit http://uspirg.org/reports/usp/why-you-should-get-security-freezes-your-information-stolen. To order copies of your free credit reports, visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com, or call 877-322-8228.
What it does: Blocks credit bureaus from releasing information from your credit report to lenders and other businesses without your permission. That effectively stops identity thieves from opening a credit card, cell phone account or other accounts in your name.
Where to start: For information on credit freezes, visit each of the three main national credit bureaus’ websites, or call them toll free: www.freeze.equifax.com, 1-800-685-1111;
Where to turn
Victims of identity theft can visit the Federal Trade Commission’s website, www.identitytheft.gov, for a steps to take to recover, including initiating a fraud alert with credit bureaus and where to report the crime.
People should stagger their requests with each bureau every four months or so to keep tabs on their credit reports throughout the year, U.S. PIRG said.