Since I started this blog in July 2007, I've learned a lot about identity theft. I had to after IBM exposed my sensitive personal data. First, I placed a 90-day Fraud Alert on my credit reports. Then, I signed up for the free credit monitoring service IBM provided from Kroll. 90 days later, I renewed my Fraud Alerts.
So far, so good. No problems with identity fraud.
Given the ongoing risk, I wanted more protection for my credit reports than what the credit bureaus provide with their Fraud Alert tool. The fact is, the credit bureaus just append the alert to your credit report whenever they sell it to a potential creditor. A shady creditor could still issue new credit in my name to an identity criminal. So, I placed a Security Freeze (also called a "Credit Freeze") on my credit reports at the three national credit bureaus.
While the Fraud Alert tool is free, that didn't seem to be a good value for me given the risk. The free credit monitoring service IBM arranged with Kroll was only for one year, and it did not provide an automatic Fraud Alert renewal service. While I could have continued to renew my Fraud Alerts every 90 days, stronger protection was more important to me than a freebie.
I didn't want to pay a credit monitoring service (e.g., LifeLock) to renew my Fraud Alerts because this is an easy task any consumer can do by their self -- for free. I've done it and I know. More importantly, I wanted stronger protection for my credit reports. The Security Freeze option fills that need.
To place the Security Freeze, first I visited each credit bureau's web site and printed their Security Freeze instructions page. All three credit bureaus have similar instructions. You have to provide them with documentation verifying, a) who you are, b) your current residential address, c) valid payment; and send a letter via snail mail (or overnight express) requesting the Security Freeze. You can't place a Security Freeze over the phone, via e-mail, nor via text messaging.
While all three national credit bureaus offer the Security Freeze option nationwide, the fees vary by state. According to Massachusetts law, each credit bureau can charge a Massachusetts resident a maximum of $5 to place, lift, and remove a security freeze. Each credit bureau's web site lists the fees for your state. If you are an identity theft victim (e.g, you can prove so by providing a copy of a filed police report), then the Security Freeze is usually free. In many states, the Security Freeze is free for residents 65 years of age or older.
Should IBM have paid for my Security Freeze fees? That's a discussion I'll save for another post. For me, the $15 total fees is a good investment for both protection and peace of mind. I'd like to thank my state's legislators and Governor Patrick for keeping the Security Freeze fee low for Massachusetts residents.
Next, I assembled my Security Freeze letters. Some credit bureaus require a photocopy of your Driver's License, and/or an insurance or bank statement. This was time consuming, but easy to do. The whole process took me about 4 hours.
At the post office, I mailed all letters via Certified Mail - Return Receipt. While this cost a little more, it is a smart investment because it minimized my worries. The Return Receipt notice informed me when each credit bureau received my Security Freeze letter. About 8 business days later, I received confirmation letters from the credit bureaus.
Each confirmation letter included an explanation of that credit bureau's Security Freeze process, additional instructions, and my personal PIN number. You'll need this PIN when communicating with the credit bureau to temporarily lift or remove your Security Freeze. I stored these confirmations in a secure location.
Will a Security Freeze prevent all types of identity theft and fraud? No. A Security Freeze is not a cure-all. I don't have any illusions about this. While a Security Freeze will prevent criminals from opening new credit and new financial accounts in your name, it won't stop criminals from committing a crime in your name, if your personal data has already been stolen or exposed -- like IBM exposed mine. Nor will a Security Freeze prevent criminals from breaking into my financial accounts. There are other things consumers must do like use rotating and stronger passwords, and set up e-mail or text messaging alerts for your financial accounts.