Adding freezes to your credit reports is an appropriate response to the massive Equifax database breach that exposed the private information of 143 million Americans.
Don't make the mistake of thinking those freezes will keep you safe, however.
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Credit freezes lock down your credit reports in a way that should prevent "new account fraud," or bogus accounts being opened in your name. But there are so many other ways the bad guys can use the information they stole, which included Social Security numbers, birthdates, addresses and some driver's license numbers. Others include:
—Stealing your tax refund and preventing you from filing returns by submitting fake ones
—Using your information to get health care, which can result not only in medical collections on your credit reports but a stranger's health information getting mixed in with your records
—Giving your identification to the police when they get arrested, creating criminal records that could land you in jail or prevent you from getting a job
—Filing for bankruptcy in your name or transferring deeds of property you own
You can't prevent any of these bad things from happening. The best you can do is remain as vigilant as you can and try to clear up the messes as they happen.
If you feel helpless, there's a good reason for that: You are.
THEFT AND RUIN, DONE IN YOUR NAME
"Equifax just signed you up for a lifetime game of Whack-A-Mole," says Leslie Beck, a certified financial planner in Rutherford, New Jersey.
Beck's husband, Mark, is an investment consultant who's been the repeated victim of identity theft after his wallet was stolen in 1999. Shutting down bogus credit accounts — freezes weren't available back then — was just the start. One thief used Mark Beck's name to commit insurance fraud by staging phony car accidents. Another was arrested for public urination, creating an outstanding warrant in Mark Beck's name that could have cost him his job.
The last incident was in 2007, but the Becks say they're still on high alert. "I never feel safe anymore," Mark Beck says.
The Becks' world is our world now. We need to scan every piece of mail and junk mail, looking for unfamiliar names that could indicate someone is trying to take over our accounts. We need to obsessively check our bank statements, credit card bills and credit reports for unauthorized activity. We need to hold our breath every time we apply for a job or get stopped by a cop, lest someone else's misdeeds derail our lives.
We need to pay the price, in other words, because a private company couldn't be bothered to invest adequately in the security that might have protected us.
CONGRESS, FORBID THE USE OF SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS
There's one thing Congress can and should do to mitigate the damage.
It's not making freezes free, although that would be nice. It typically costs $3 to $10 at each of the three bureaus to freeze your report, plus $2 to $10 to lift the freeze temporarily if you want new credit — or a job, or insurance, or an apartment, or cell service, or any of the other reasons companies have to check your report. The idea that you have to pay to protect your own information, which was gathered and bartered without your consent, is outrageous.
Congress also is not requiring the bureaus to offer free credit monitoring for life — although that, too, would help, since that can alert you to bogus credit accounts and help you clear up the damage.
What Congress should do is to forbid private companies and government agencies, except for Social Security, from using Social Security numbers as an all-purpose identifier. We wouldn't be so vulnerable to so many frauds if those digits were limited to their original purpose of earning and receiving retirement and disability benefits.
The cost of switching away from Social Security numbers would be huge. The good news: Much of that expense would be borne by the companies that have been profiting from using our data in the first place.
WHAT YOU CAN DO NOW
—Get your credit reports from the three major bureaus and look for accounts you don't recognize. Here's how to use AnnualCreditReport.com ; you can check each bureau once a year.
—Sign up for a free credit report service that you can access more frequently. It will alert you to new accounts, changes in your score or new negative items.
—Freeze your credit reports as soon as possible with each of the three major credit bureaus to prevent scammers from opening new accounts. If a freeze is inconvenient or unavailable, set fraud alerts on your reports.
—Stay vigilant. As long as your Social Security number is the key to your identity, you'll need to be on guard. That's our life now, thanks to Equifax.
Liz Weston is a columnist at NerdWallet , a certified financial planner and author of "Your Credit Score." Email: email@example.com . Twitter: @lizweston.
NerdWallet: Get a free credit report - https://nerd.me/free-credit-report
NerdWallet: How to use AnnualCreditReport.com - https://nerd.me/using-credit-report-site
NerdWallet: How to freeze your credit, and why you should - https://nerd.me/freeze-credit
NerdWallet: The difference between credit freezes and fraud alerts - https://nerd.me/credit-freeze-vs-alerts