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By Herb Weisbaum

Freezing your files at the big three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — is one of the best ways to protect yourself from financial identity theft. Starting Sept. 21, everyone can do it — for free.

Until now, it could cost as much as $10 to freeze your file at each credit bureau, depending on your age and where you live. That same fee applied to unfreeze or “thaw” the file, if you wanted to apply for credit. And then, you had to pay again to refreeze it.

In the wake of the last year’s Equifax mega-breach of nearly 148 million personal records, Congress passed a law that requires the credit bureaus to offer this important fraud protection free of charge. Now, you can freeze and thaw and refreeze your account as many times as you want, and it won’t cost anything.

“We're very hopeful consumers will take advantage of this new legislation,” said Eva Velasquez president and CEO of the non-profit Identity Theft Resource Center. “This is one of the most proactive consumer-protection steps people can take.”

A recent national survey by NerdWallet, a financial advice website, found that only 10 percent of Americans froze their credit files after the Equifax breach.

“Even though people say they are very concerned about their financial security, they're not actually taking steps to protect themselves,” said Kimberly Palmer, NerdWallet’s personal finance expert. “Some people feel they're just too busy or it's too much effort, or it could be the cost that was holding people back.”

Seventy-five percent of the 2,005 adults responding to the NerdWallet survey said they’d be likely to freeze their credit when a breach involved their information, if doing so were free.

How does it work and what will it do?

A security freeze restricts access to your credit file, to prevent anyone from opening new accounts or taking out loans in your name — even you. To apply for credit, you’ll need to thaw the account. It’s also important to know that:

  • A credit freeze does not impact current financial relationships, so it does not affect your existing credit card accounts, loans or mortgage.
  • A freeze does not hurt your credit score.

To secure your credit files, you’ll need to request a freeze at each of the three bureaus. After verifying your identity and answering some challenge questions, you’ll be issued a PIN for that account that must be used to freeze or thaw it.

Keep in mind: The credit bureau websites are designed to sell you products and services, so use these direct links:

The new law also requires a quick response to your requests:

  • Ask for a freeze online or by phone and the credit reporting agency must put the freeze in place no later than the next business day.
  • If you want to lift the freeze, that has to happen within an hour.

Equifax, Experian and TransUnion told NBC News BETTER they’ve prepared for the new law by making it easier for people to initiate a freeze or thaw.

“A freeze may not be for everyone, but we want to make the process as simple as possible,” said Rod Griffin, director or public education at Experian. “With the problem of identity theft today, it's critical that people be engaged in the process and know what's going on with their credit report.”

TransUnion is the only bureau to provide an app to control the process. Using the free myTransUnion app for both Android and iOS devices, you can instantaneously freeze or thaw your account. You can even schedule an automatic refreeze, so you don’t forget to do it.

“We want people to feel like they have control and can protect themselves, but we also want to take any friction out of this process for consumers,” said John Danaher, president of consumer interactive at TransUnion.

NOTE: If you’ve already frozen your files, there’s nothing to do. The bureaus will simply stop charging you. If you have a Fraud Alert in place (not as robust as a freeze) that will now be extended for one year from the date it was initiated.

New law makes it easier to protect your kids

Most children don’t have credit files, but they can still be targeted by identity thieves who want to use that unblemished credit history for their nefarious purposes. More than 1 million children in the U.S. were ID theft victims last year, resulting in losses of $2.67 billion, according to the 2018 Child Identity Fraud Study by Javelin Strategy & Research.

Congress made it easier for parents and guardians to protect minors by taking a patchwork of state laws making the process uniform and free for everyone. You can do this online by going to the Equifax, Experian and TransUnion websites.

A freeze vs. a lock — and what about credit monitoring?

TransUnion and Equifax offer a free credit lock, which is similar in many ways to a security freeze. Consumer advocates contacted by NBC News BETTER all recommend going with the freeze, now that it’s free.

“Credit freezes are a right mandated by law and not conditional on terms set by companies the way credit locks are,” said Mike Litt with U.S. PIRG. “Your rights as a consumer are on firmer ground with credit freezes.”

If you sign up for the free credit lock at Equifax or TransUnion, your information can be used for marketing purposes. They can’t do that with a freeze, Litt said.

Don’t confuse a freeze — or even a lock — with credit monitoring which looks for potential signs of fraudulent activity.

“A security freeze is the most effective measure you can take to prevent identity theft,” said Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. “If you get credit monitoring for free, it doesn't hurt to combine it with a freeze, but credit monitoring doesn’t prevent identity theft – it simply alerts you to a problem. It doesn’t keep the horse from getting out of the barn; all it does is tell you the horse is gone.”

A freeze isn't a silver bullet

A security freeze is an important fraud-fighting tool, but it doesn’t stop all forms of identity theft, just the creation of new financial accounts in your name. You’re still vulnerable to existing account fraud, where a crook steals your credit or debit card number and starts buying things.

That’s why you need to do several other things to protect yourself:

  • Check your bank and credit card accounts at least once a week and look for any suspicious activity.
  • Set up alerts on your bank and credit card accounts to give you real-time notification of what’s happening to your accounts.
  • Get your free credit reports once a year and check for errors or anything questionable.
  • Monitor your credit score for unexplained and dramatic changes that could signal fraud.

MORE CREDIT TIPS

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