New federal law makes credit freezes free and easier to get: Internet Scambusters #827
Placing a credit freeze and a fraud alert with the big three credit scoring and reporting agencies are your first line of defense if your confidential personal and financial information are stolen by ID thieves.
And now a change in the law makes it cheaper (as in "free") and easier to put these protections in place.
In this week's issue, we explain the changes and provide the information you'll need if you ever need to lock down your credit security.
Let's check out today's...
No-Cost Credit Freezes Step Up Battle to Beat ID Thieves
Hardly a week goes by these days without news of a data breach that's resulted in thousands or even millions of confidential records being stolen by hackers.
That makes it more important than ever to know what to do to protect yourself -- and top of your list should be knowing how to implement a credit freeze or security freeze with the big three credit reporting agencies.
A freeze restricts outside access to your personal credit record with each of the agencies.
At the same time, people who are concerned about the security of their data can also place a fraud alert on their records, which requires banks and other lenders to check with you before opening accounts in your name.
Banks, other financial institutions, and other businesses offering credit always check a person's record and credit score with these agencies before lending money.
If the record is frozen, they'll tell the lender who won't get the information they need, and whoever made the application won't get their money. If you happen to be the borrower, you can temporarily lift the freeze to get your money.
In the past, freezing credit tended to be a somewhat complicated process and, in some cases, a costly one too since in many states you would have to pay fees too.
The credit agencies themselves -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- have recently simplified the process. And now the charges have just been swept away -- making it free to freeze (and unfreeze) your account.
Technically, what's happened is that the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act has come into force.
This allows consumers to freeze their credit with the agencies without charge. You can also freeze the credit record of your children aged under 16; those with power of attorney or guardianships over others can do the same.
Previously, too, you could place a fraud alert on your credit report for up to 90 days. This has now been extended to a full year -- and it's possible to extend the alert for up to seven years.
Special arrangements for those undertaking military service, in the form of "active duty alerts," also include removing your name from marketing lists for pre-screened credit card offers for two years.
To freeze access to your records, you still have to contact each of the agencies separately (details below) and they have to put the freeze in place within 24 hours of your phoning them or requesting the freeze online. If you want to unfreeze the records, they have to do it within an hour (during normal business hours).
If you request the freeze or unfreeze by mail, they must act within three days after receiving your request.
You can also ask for a temporary unfreeze for a specified period, again without paying a fee.
"Suppose consumers concerned about identity theft decide to freeze their credit," the FTC explains. "Fast forward a few months and their furnace is on the fritz or they're shopping for a new refrigerator.
"To finance a purchase, they'll need to lift the freeze on their credit. Under the old system, depending on the circumstances, that could take several days. (Now) that has to happen within an hour. The good news for consumers and businesses: a quicker, easier system that puts consumers at the controls."
With fraud alerts, the process is even simpler -- you only have to tell one of the agencies and they must pass the information on to the other two.
According to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), identity theft was the second biggest category of consumer complaints last year.
The Commission points out that a freeze is not the same as a "lock."
"They work in similar ways," it says, "but locks may have monthly fees. If you want a free freeze guaranteed by federal law, then opt for a freeze, not a lock."
In fact, Consumer Reports magazine recently reported that the agencies were "pushing consumers to lock their credit" instead of freezing it by citing convenience and, in some cases, offering special deals.
It's true that a lock can be activated or lifted instantly using a smartphone app.
However, says the publication, a freeze is the better option because its promise of protection is guaranteed by law.
It quoted an attorney from the National Consumer Law Center as pointing out: "Because security freezes are now covered by Federal law, if something goes wrong -- for example, if credit accounts are fraudulently accessed anyway -- consumers will be protected from any financial liability. With locks, it's not clear who would be liable."
Here are the contact details for the three agencies:
- Equifax: Equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services | 800-685-1111
- Experian: Experian.com/help | 888-EXPERIAN (888-397-3742)
- TransUnion: TransUnion.com/credit-help | 888-909-8872
The Commission has also issued guidance for businesses on understanding and working with the new credit freeze laws. The page includes links to other information about the credit agencies.
Alert of the Week
Staying with the FTC, the Commission has recently announced the mail-out of almost 500,000 checks to people who bought LED light bulbs from Lights of America.
A federal court ordered the company and two other defendants to pay $21 million for the refunds because they allegedly overstated the light output and life expectancy of the bulbs.
Did you buy an LED bulb from Lights of America between 2007 and 2011? If so, and you haven't received your refund, visit the FTC Refunds page to file your claim.
That's all for today -- we'll see you next week.