Note: Much of this column ran in the print edition on Jan. 27, 2018. Some additional details and the last section about utility insurance has been added for the online edition. Those portions had to be cut for space in the print edition. Additionally, some more details have been added as of Jan. 31 with some new information after Equifax announced it was extending its free credit freezes through June 30th.

If you’ve been meaning to place a credit freeze after last fall’s huge Equifax data breach, but never got around to it, now’s the time.

Wednesday, Jan. 31, is the last day Equifax is offering to waive fees to freeze credit at its bureau. The credit bureau offered the free credit freeze in the wake of the breach, which affected 145.5 million people, or half the country, in September.

Update 1/31: Equifax is now extending its free credit freeze and lift through June 30, 2018. It is still important to go ahead and freeze your files at all three major bureaus now. Also, Equifax is offering a free Credit Lock and Freeze, which is different from a credit freeze. The U.S. PIRG suggests getting the credit freeze on all credit reports as they have more protections under law.

But state lawmakers and U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown are all working on changing laws to make all credit freezes and lifts free.

I recommend that everyone place a credit freeze regardless of whether you are affected by the Equifax breach. There have been so many data breaches that you might as well lock all of your doors to your credit and hold the key yourself.

You can re-read my column after the Equifax breach for a lot more detail at www.ohio.com/betty under “Betty’s Best Tips.”

To be clear, a credit freeze halts the ability for you or a thief to get new credit in your name unless you “lift” or “thaw” your freeze. A freeze has nothing to do with your ability to use your existing credit, like your credit cards.

Here’s how to place a freeze. The cost to freeze and lift at the other two bureaus is still $5 each, until lawmakers are successful.

•?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

The cost for credit freezes and lifts vary by state. Brown, a Democrat from Ohio, said after the Equifax breach that he would sponsor legislation to make all credit freezes and lifts free nationally.

Jennifer Donohue, a press secretary in Brown’s office, said Friday that the senator “is moving forward with legislation. Unfortunately, it hasn’t been taken up by Congress yet. But he will continue looking for opportunities to get it passed.”

In Ohio, a house bill co-sponsored by Rep. Michael Henne, R-Clayton, and Rep. Brigid Kelly, D-Cincinnati, would remove the $5 fee it currently costs Ohioans to place or lift a freeze and make it free.

“In today’s age when even the credit bureaus are being breached, people should be allowed to freeze and lift their credit for no charge,” Henne said in a phone interview.

The bill is in the Financial Institutions, Housing & Urban Development subcommittee and has received two hearings. Henne said he has not received any opposition to the bill.

Henne said he is optimistic he can get the bill approved in the state House, but “you never know what happens in the Senate.”

In the meantime, it’s worth paying for the freezes to protect yourself and your loved ones.

NOPEC aggregation

Letters will arrive in the mail any day now to about 400,000 customers of NOPEC, or the Northeast Ohio Public Energy Council. The consortium of about 230 governments has been growing.

In our area, it now includes all Summit County townships and the city of New Franklin, much of northern Summit County and Portage County. It also includes Cuyahoga Falls.

Aggregations, or bulk-buying via communities, were created in the early 2000s, after voters passed ballot measures allowing the groups to be formed.

So unless you have specifically chosen a marketer on your own, say for a fixed or variable rate (the Standard Choice Offer doesn’t count), then you will receive a letter and you will automatically be included in an aggregation, unless you opt out.

While those of us on the SCO actively chose it, you will still be included in a community aggregation unless you permanently opt out.

You can read a lot more about aggregations and my step-by-step advice on how to get the SCO, which I continue to recommend unless you are with NOPEC, at www.ohio.com/betty. I update that column monthly with the SCO price, which is $2.74 per thousand cubic feet (mcf) for January.

NOPEC offers two programs: its “Program Price,” which is typically competitive with the market and can change anywhere from monthly to every 60 days or so and a variable price that is guaranteed to be 2 cents/mcf below the SCO. NOPEC customers automatically get the “program price,” unless they specifically call for the 2-cent-below plan.

A note about that plan: while it beats the SCO by 2 cents — and that’s good, given the cheap prices of the SCO — the average residential customer uses 100 mcf a year, so we’re talking about a $2 a year savings. So don’t lose any sleep over this.

NOPEC natural gas “program price” is currently $3.75/mcf fixed.

Cuyahoga Falls customers are coming off an aggregation in IGS that expires with their March billing and is $3.46/mcf.

There are about 11,000 customers on the aggregation.

The new NOPEC program price will be $3.39/mcf for April through June bills.

Eeither of NOPEC’s options is fine. I’d prefer the 2-cent-below the SCO.

“Our strategy is always to keep people in the bottom 3 to 5 percent of the market,” NOPEC Executive Director Chuck Keiper said. “If you don’t mind watching [the market] … then you want the guaranteed 2-cents-below option.”

You must opt out by Feb. 23 or you will be included automatically.

If you want NOPEC’s program price, you don’t need to do anything. If you want the 2-cent-below price, you must call NOPEC at 855-667-3201 — and it does not automatically renew.

If you live in a Summit County township and think you already opted out last fall, you’re correct.

Summit County’s contract started with NOPEC at the end of its last contract and now Summit County and all of NOPEC’s customers will be on the same cycle — including new Cuyahoga Falls customers — and you have to opt-out again if you do not want it now.

If you are already in NOPEC, you don’t have to do anything.

Also, this NOPEC opt-out also is not for electricity; Summit County customers are still on an aggregation plan with FirstEnergy Solutions and Cuyahoga Falls has its own municipal electric company.

Utility insurance?

I have received several inquiries from readers about the letters from the City of Akron offering voluntary sewer-line insurance through a private company.

I also get similar questions periodically about the voluntary warranties or protection plans offered by the electric and gas companies.

The City of Akron has had an aggressive letter-writing campaign here lately (I received two identical offers). My colleague, Doug Livingston, who covers the city, wrote a story earlier this week detailing the program and some pros and cons.

Here’s some of my thoughts on these types of insurances:

These are all “extra insurances” and the decision is up to the homeowner. I think it really depends on the age of your home and the likelihood that you’ll need that repair. Often, if you do the math, if you can be disciplined or have an emergency fund, by the time you save the monthly premium on your own, you can save money by not paying them the premium and paying it out of pocket, if you have an issue.

Of course, there’s never a guarantee that something may not go wrong and you wish you had the warranty, but I’d rather take my chances on “if” that happens and have the money to pay the repair out of pocket instead of giving them $3 to $5 a month for years for multiple warranties I may never use. (People who perhaps don’t have emergency funds or have more budgetary issues may want to consider it, but my argument would also be whether you should be paying $3-$5 on something you may never use.)

Beacon Journal consumer columnist and medical reporter 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