If you’re worried that someone nefarious may have gotten ahold of your sensitive personal data from a data breach or a phishing scheme, freezing your credit is one of the best ways to make sure your finances stay secure. And now you can do it for free, thanks to a new law that requires major credit bureaus to let you to freeze and unfreeze your credit without incurring any charges, according to USA Today. Previously, this could cost up to $12 per bureau, though charges were already prohibited in a few states.
Under the new federal law, which took effect September 21, you can freeze and unfreeze your credit with Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—the three main credit bureaus—in any state without a fee. The legislation also extends fraud alerts on credit reports, allowing you to keep an alert on your account for a year instead of just 90 days.
Freezing your credit means that you’re restricting access to your credit report, which lenders typically need to see before they open a new account for you. Debt collectors and organizations you already have credit with can still access your account, but if, for instance, a scammer tries to open a new credit card or take out a loan, the process will be halted when the creditor can’t access your report. In order to let someone access your report, like if your future landlord needs to take a look, you have to unfreeze it temporarily yourself.
Fraud alerts are less drastic than credit freezes, and may be a better fit for some people who are looking to protect themselves from fraud. Instead of totally freezing access to your credit report, a fraud alert requires lenders to take extra steps to verify your identity before opening a new account in your name.
Data breaches are becoming frighteningly common, and not even credit bureaus are immune. In 2017, an Equifax hack exposed the personal information of millions of people, including social security numbers, tax identification numbers, and driver’s licenses. At least 147.9 million Americans were affected. After the breach, many security experts suggested that customers whose information may have been stolen freeze their credit. Anyone who had the bad luck to be involved in the scam had to decide whether or not to pay Equifax and other credit bureaus to protect their identities, even though they weren't responsible for the breach in any way—no one gets to choose whether or not credit bureaus collect data on them. Now, at least, if your information is exposed through a company’s bad security practices, you can't be charged a fee for it.
[h/t USA Today]