Equifax. Target. Yahoo. Ashley Madison ... The list goes on. It seems no company is immune to a leak or a hack these days, and the warnings from experts have grown increasingly dire. The question today isn’t whether or not you need identity theft protection, it’s whether you want to monitor things on your own, or pay a company to do it for you.
“There’s a level of ‘nightmare’ identity theft that’s rare now, but in the next few years could become the standard,” says Neal O'Farrell, Executive Director of the Identity Theft Council — not referring to the easy-to-shut-down scenario of a misappropriated credit card number, but something much more difficult to manage. “There’s so much information in the hands of so many competent crooks. We’re going to see more identity hacking where fraudsters are taking out mortgages, buying RVs and applying for social security benefits in your name — the stuff that’s really hard to undo.”
Under the new Senate banking bill (S.2155), which has bipartisan support and has already passed in the Senate, credit freezes, which “lock down” your credit, making it impossible for anyone to open a new line of credit in your name, would be available for free to all Americans. Right now, the bureaus charge between $10 and $30 each time you freeze or unfreeze — which you have to do every time you want to apply for credit yourself. If the bill passes, The Federal Trade Commission would set up a website with links to the major credit bureaus’ pages where consumers could freeze their reports and put fraud alerts on their files. Consumers would be able to have their credit frozen or unfrozen within one hour of putting in the request via phone or email. But just because your credit is frozen doesn’t mean your problems are over.
Free credit freezes would be great, but they aren’t a cure-all
A freeze only mitigates new credit fraud — it does nothing to help with existing account fraud.
One of the dangers of giving any one identity protection tool “silver bullet” status is the immediate complacency it generates in consumers, explains Sandra Bernardo, manager of consumer education at Experian. A freeze only mitigates new credit fraud — it does nothing to help with existing account fraud.
Bernardo says that Experian supports the federal security freeze provision in the Senate bill because it will simplify the process for consumers and create one national standard for all three credit bureaus. But, she cautions, “We don’t believe the criminals are going to pack it up and quit because people start freezing their credit files.”
With that said, free freezes will give “more power to the people,” says Jacob Lehmann, managing director at advisory firm Friedman CyZen. “If more people are able to take advantage of freezes than would have ordinarily, it’s a great thing. But it’s scratching the surface in terms of what should be done to protect people, because there are so many different ways people’s information can be leaked.”
Start with small — and free — steps to protect yourself
What you may not think is worthy of theft is exactly what thieves will use to gain access to other parts of your life, explains Daniel Odess, President of GlobalPro Recovery, a firm that helps clients manage risks to financial recovery following insurance-related losses. Something as innocuous as publicly posting a picture with your mom — with her maiden name tagged — could be all a thief needs to gain access to your credit.