Note: I will continue to update this column as more information is released. This column originally published on Sept. 30. Update 2/1/18: Equifax originally had a deadline of Jan. 31 for its free credit freeze or lift. The credit bureau is now offering the free freeze or lift through June 30. But you should still get to it now and freeze your reports at all of the major credit bureaus. Lock up your credit to protect yourself. You can read the 2/1/18 column, which also updates some legislative efforts in Ohio and nationwide to try to make credit freezes free. https://www.ohio.com/akron/business/taking-action/betty-lin-fisher-updates-on-placing-a-credit-freeze-nopec-natural-gas

We are now three weeks out from the huge announcement that Equifax, one of three major credit bureaus that keeps our credit history, was breached.

The breach affected 143 million people in the U.S., or half the country. (That number has since been updated to 145.5 million who were breached)

I have been updating my columns online with the latest information or answers to questions or issues readers and I have discovered along the way.

In short, it’s been a huge mess for consumers.

In this column, I will recap the most important information and the most up-to-date information. Since I have limited space, I cannot repeat a lot of the information that I have been updating online or have already reported, so I encourage you to go to www.ohio.com/betty to read the previous columns and updates. They will also be linked to this story online. If you do not have access to a computer, you could go to the library or ask a friend to help you.

Place a credit freeze

There’s no question that in my opinion, and those of consumer advocates nationally, everyone should place a credit freeze with all of the credit bureaus. This is regardless of whether you are listed among those who were affected by the Equifax breach. We are just in a time when there are so many data breaches that it is the proactive thing to do. It’s like locking all of the doors to your house. Make sure you freeze the reports for yourself and your spouse or any adult children for all of the bureaus. (More information about minors below.)

As a reminder, a credit freeze does not have any effect on your existing accounts or credit. It will freeze or lock you and others out from getting new credit unless you lift or “thaw” your freeze with a PIN number. You can lift temporarily for a certain amount of time (recommended) or permanently.

All of the bureaus’ systems online and phone systems were overwhelmed, and in some cases they told people they couldn’t process their request. Keep trying; people have said they have been able to get through after it had not been working. Attempt online first and then try phone, which is an automated system (and sometimes hangs up on people). If you’re calling, try at odd hours. If you do have to resort to mailing documents, make copies of your driver’s license, your Social Security number and a utility bill showing your address and mail via certified mail or registered mail.

Equifax is waiving its $5 one-time fee to place or lift a freeze and is issuing refunds for any placed after Sept. 7. In an email to me on Sept. 29, an Equifax spokesperson said the waived fees were through Nov. 21, however in an op-ed piece earlier this week, the new interim Equifax CEO said they would be through Jan. 31. Here’s the Op-Ed for you to read with some other promises: http://tinyurl.com/equicolumn.

Update 10/4: Equifax media relations contacts have confirmed that all fees for freezes and lifts through Jan. 31 will be waived.

Update 2/1/18: Equifax originally had a deadline of Jan. 31 for its free credit freeze or lift. The credit bureau is now offering the free freeze or lift through June 30.

Competitors Experian and TransUnion are still charging  a $5 one-time fee to freeze (TransUnion does not charge to lift). Advocates are trying to push to make all credit freezes free.

The Identity Theft Resource Center has started an online petition to convince the CEOs of the credit bureaus to make all credit freezes free. You can see more information on what to do after a breach at: https://www.idtheftcenter.org/equifaxdatabreach

Here’s how to get a credit freeze:

•?Equifax: 800-685-1111, Equifax Security Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA 30348-5788 or https://www.equifax.com/CreditReportAssistance

•?Experian: 888-397-3742, Experian Security Freeze, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013 or https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html

•?TransUnion: 888-909-8872, TransUnion, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016 or https://www.transunion.com/securityfreeze

Update 10/4: Link above will work, but you'll have to wade through lots of attempts to get you to consider TransUnion's free credit lock or other products. I still recommend the credit freeze (read below) and here's a direct link to get you to the page to start the credit freeze by registering for an account. https://freeze.transunion.com/sf/securityFreeze/landingPage.jsp

•?Innovis (this is a fourth and lesser-known bureau, but their freezes are free): 800-540-2505 or https://www.innovis.com/personal/securityFreeze

TrustedID product

Equifax is offering oneyear free for its TrustedID product. To me, this is a bonus, if you want, but not in place of a credit freeze. This product will monitor your credit and let you know if your Social Security number is being used suspiciously and provides up to $1 million in ID theft insurance. Equifax has confirmed for me that you cannot have a credit freeze and its free Credit Lock service, included in the TrustedID product, at the same time. I would keep the credit freeze since that allows you to hold the keys and opt out of the credit lock.

Equifax has also said it knows its confirmation emails to finish enrollment have had issues. I had to re-request enrollment to finally get my confirmation email.

Update 10/13: I have had several readers tell me that they've been told when they call Equifax by phone that they have to unfreeze their credit with Equifax in order to accept the free TrustedID product. That is not true. You cannot have both a credit freeze and the TrustedID Credit Lock and as I said above, I would choose the credit freeze over the lock. I was able to activate my TrustedID account without lifting my credit freeze and I just have a notice on my account when I log in that there is an issue (because I don't have their Credit Lock activated. But that's OK because I have my credit freeze on.)

 

Credit lock vs. freeze?

Equifax and TransUnion both are offering and pushing their own version of a credit lock, which is slightly different than a credit freeze, saying theirs is free. Consumer advocates have still said a credit freeze is best because while it costs money (for TransUnion at least, since Equifax is waiving freeze fees temporarily), a freeze is permanent and allows you to hold the keys to lift it. The others likely are linked to products and fall off once the trial period is over.

Update 10/4: Some readers have asked about a fraud alert instead of a credit freeze. Credit freezes are stronger than credit fraud alerts, also offered by the bureaus, but the major difference is this: a fraud alert is a free 90-word statement that appears on your credit report and creditors may or may not see that as they open a new credit account by an ID thief. If you have a credit freeze, the creditor cannot grant that new credit unless you've lifted it. Personally, I don't think fraud alerts do much. A credit freeze puts you in control instead of relying on someone who wants to give you new credit (to sell a new house, car, etc.) reading those 90 words to stop a potential ID thief.

Child credit freezes

I have been writing that my 14-year-old son is apparently part of this Equifax breach, though the bureaus all say they don’t knowingly have credit files on minor children. I have also been advocating for either legislation to close a loophole or the bureaus to allow parents of all children under 18 to proactively place a credit freeze if they want. (Ohio law only allows it until age 16, so 16- and 17-year-olds are unprotected.)

Here’s what I’ve found out. I still don’t have all of the answers and am still trying.

Experian will create a file, even if one doesn’t exist for the minor, to allow a parent to place a freeze. Experian will also not remove the freeze at age 16 and will keep it on until it is requested to be removed. Experian is checking my question to see whether an 18-year-old would automatically keep the freeze.

Update 10/17: Experian said a freeze placed for a minor child will remain through adulthood, or when the child turns 18. So there will not be a need for the child/adult to refreeze the file. Also to clarify, Experian said it will allow parents to place a minor credit freeze regardless of the state's law on age (Ohio's is 16).

TransUnion said it will allow a parent to place a freeze in all 50 states if a credit file exists for the minor. However, if a file does not exist (for instance, I checked for both of my kids and there were none), TransUnion said it believes a proactive file freeze is a drastic solution only needed during Child ID theft and it will not allow a freeze if no file exists, or it will follow state law (so in Ohio, only until age 16). That’s disappointing to me.

Equifax did not answer my repeated questions about this in time for deadline.

Update 10/17: I again sent my questions seeking answers to Equifax.

Update 10/30: I'm still waiting for Equifax to answer these specific questions. They occasionally will send me an answer, and I have to tell them they haven't answered my question.

Here’s information about credit freezes for minors. For mail, send it certified:

• Equifax: https://www.freeze.equifax.com/Freeze/jsp/SFF_FrzMinorChild.jsp

• Experian: http://www.experian.com/fraud/form-minor-child.html

• TransUnion: https://www.transunion.com/fraud-victim-resource/child-identity-theft

• Innovis: https://www.innovis.com/personal/lc_minorsProtected

PIN problems

Many consumers are reporting that when placing an Equifax credit freeze online or by phone, they have either missed the PIN number assigned to them or it didn’t show up. Here’s a phone number to talk to a live agent at Equifax for your PIN: 866-349-5191, choose option 5 or say "agent"

There have been reports about how easy it seems online to recover a PIN from Experian. The bureau confirmed that it is using extra verifying information before providing the PIN. I tried it, and it asked me specific questions related to my credit file.

Update 10/2: I have updated the information above to include Option 5 to try to get to a live agent. A reader called and said she couldn't get through and it hung up on her. I tried today and seemed to be stuck in a loop of being on hold and am not sure if I would have been connected. Mondays are often the worst days to call any type of customer service line, let alone Equifax since they just announced today that there were 2.5 million more victims of the breach. Keep trying, perhaps at odd hours.

Social Security accounts

Since Social Security numbers are key to ID theft and they are usually part of a data breach, Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said it could be a good idea for people to proactively establish their MySocialSecurity account, which is online access to Social Security’s website, www.socialsecurity.gov so a hacker doesn’t do it and wreak havoc with your benefits.

Social Security, however, checks your credit with (ironically) Equifax in its verification process. So if you have a credit freeze, you must first lift it in order to establish your Social Security account.

My husband and I tried this. We got the lifts for free since Equifax is waiving them through Nov. 21. Ironically, I wasn’t able to accurately answer questions about things in my credit report (that’s a whole different column about how there are often mistakes in your credit file), so I locked myself out of the Social Security system for 24 hours. We opened my husband’s account without a problem.

This might be something you want to do, even if you’re years away from collecting Social Security. You do need to be at least 18 to open an account. If you don’t have computer access, perhaps ask a trusted friend or go to the library. You can also create an account without removing the security freeze or alert by visiting a Social Security office.

Also, Social Security allows you to freeze access to your Social Security account, but I have confirmed with the government that by blocking access, you are blocking ALL access, both by phone and electronically to your Social Security account. So Social Security only recommends this in cases of actual identity theft. If you do want to block all access, you can do so online. It may be possible to request it by calling 800-772-1213. I was not able to confirm this with Social Security by my deadline.

Update 10/3: I tried yet again to establish My Social Security online access and again,  I failed the credit report verification because the questions seemed top have nothing to do with me. Since I had already failed once, that suspended my access from Social Security. So I went to www.annualcreditreport.com and accessed my free credit report from Equifax to try to see what was in it, if I couldn't answer some of the questions. When I looked at it, I didn't see anything awry, so I'm not sure why I failed the weird questions. (more information at the end of this column under updates on how to request your free credit reports). I had to phone Social Security at 800-772-1213 (say "Help Desk" when it asks why you're calling.) I had to wait about 20 minutes, but did speak to a representative, who unlocked my access after I verified my identity. He said I'd still have to wait another 24 hours to try again.

Update 10/4: Third time was a charm. I finally verified my identity to Social Security. Thankfully, is Equifax is waiving fees (as it should be) for placing of lifting freezes through the end of January since I had to do another temporary lift of my freeze since I had to wait several days to get this to work.

Update 10/30: Here's a few links the Social Security Administration press office said might be helpful for readers for information about protecting your Social Security.

https://blog.ssa.gov/protecting-your-social-security/

https://www.ssa.gov/pubs/EN-05-10064.pdf

https://faq.ssa.gov/link/portal/34011/34019/Article/3792/What-should-I-do-if-I-think-someone-is-using-my-Social-Security-number

More coverage

The press contacts for the credit bureaus have understandably been inundated with media questions from journalists all over the country. But in some cases, they were not answering inquiries. Lately, it’s gotten better, but we still don’t get all of our answers all the time. I’ve taken to crowdsourcing with New York Times Your Money columnist Ron Lieber, whom I didn’t know before this debacle. That’s what this has come to: journalists across the country crowdsourcing questions and limited answers from the sources. Ron has shared my column with his readers, since I got some information he hasn’t and vice versa. Here’s Ron’s latest column: http://tinyurl.com/rononequifax

10/2 update: Equifax has announced that its investigation into the breach is complete and 2.5 million more people were impacted by the breach for a total of 145.5 million in the U.S. As I've mentioned before, in my opinion, while it's bad that so many of us were impacted by the breach, I think everyone should be placing credit freezes at all three bureaus for all individuals to protect yourself. There's just too many data breaches.

Here's Equifax's press release:

https://investor.equifax.com/news-and-events/news/2017/10-02-2017-213238821

 

Update 10/3: (I'm trying to add some things from previous columns to have this all in one spot.)

Want to just do a checkup on your credit? By law, you can also always get a free copy of your credit reports from the other two bureaus once a year (all three are available) by going to https://www.annualcreditreport.com or calling 877-322-8228. You must disclose your Social Security number to verify your identity and answer some verification questions. A credit freeze will not affect your ability to check your own credit report. If you're looking for new credit soon, you can request all three reports from all three bureaus to do a checkup (you will have to pay to get your credit score). If you aren't going to actively be seeking credit soon, you can spread out the reports perhaps every three months. Check reports for your spouse, too.

Update 10/9: U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio, today urged the U.S. Treasury Department to bar Equifax from new or renewed contracts with the U.S. government. Equifax currently has a contract with the Social Security Administration. Consumers who want to establish their MySocialSecurity online account, as recommended by consumer advocates to thwart potential ID thieves after the Equifax breach, must first lift their credit freeze with Equifax, which is being used to verify consumers' identities. To read Brown's press release and letter, go here.

Update 10/13: Equifax is acknowledging it had a bad link on its website and it was apparently hacked with malware, which prompted consumers to download bad software. The company said it took part of its website offline. Here's the news story. https://www.ohio.com/akron/business/equifax-website-is-apparently-hacked

Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or blinfisher@thebeaconjournal.com. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ and see all her stories at www.ohio.com/betty.