Getting a credit freeze is now free for everybody, including children under 16, under a new federal law that went into effect Friday. Previously, a credit freeze could cost up to $12.
The national agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — are giving consumers this option about a year after Equifax announced criminals stole the personal information of more than 147 million people.
To protect your identity, experts recommend that you freeze your credit at all three major agencies. But the options offered by credit agencies to restrict access to your credit report can be confusing to navigate, so here's a look at the pros and cons of some of the available choices.
Pros: A credit freeze, which is one way you can block access to your credit report, is fundamental to preventing new account fraud — the purest form of identity theft, noted Robert Siciliano, a security analyst with Hotspot Shield. When someone gets your Social Security number, they can open up new lines of credit under your name. "That's a new credit card, that's a new loan, that's a mobile phone account, that's a utility, that's a mortgage, that's a car," Siciliano said.
Cons: "Thawing" your credit freeze requires a personal identification number and can be inconvenient when trying to apply for a loan or a new credit card.
It's also important to note it can't protect you from every form of theft, like criminal identity theft or tax-related fraud. "For someone who’s arrested, they give your Social Security number, and suddenly you have a record for two DUIs in your name, which can be very, very hard to undo," said Neal O’Farrell, head of the Identity Theft Council, a nonprofit that helps businesses and people combat identity theft.
He thinks identity thieves aren't losing too much sleep over freezes, adding that "we may see very capable, very competent hackers now focusing on breaking the credit freezes."
Pros: Like a credit freeze, a credit lock stops others from accessing your credit information, but the process of locking or unlocking your credit report is a lot more convenient, with agencies like TransUnion allowing you to control access from a mobile app.
Cons: While it’s easier to unlock your credit, it doesn’t offer as much protection as a credit freeze, according to O'Farrell. For one, you’re agreeing to accept advertising with a credit lock as opposed to a freeze, which means your information can be sold to third parties, he said. And they may also come with arbitration clauses, which means you can't sue the company or be part of a class-action lawsuit.
ID theft protection packages
Pros: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion offer premium packages that offer a wider range of protections, like "dark web surveillance," where they'll do daily internet scans to detect if your information has been stolen. "All of those bells and whistles are good, but most people don't take full advantage of those things," Siciliano said, adding that you should be conscious of price. Around $10 to $12 a month is a good investment, but $30 is getting steep, he said.
Cons: Some security experts say these methods, like dark web scans, aren't effective and that the option is futile since your data may have already been stolen. "There have already been so many data breaches out there," O'Farrell said. "So much of your information is exposed."