Question of the Day: What is a Security Freeze and How Can It Protect My Identity?

With news of another hack of major US institution, JPMorgan Chase, consumers might be wondering how to protect themselves from identity theft, especially stopping someone from using their identity to open new credit accounts (credit cards, auto loans, etc.).  This Time article makes the case for a security freeze:

But if you’re worried that one of the recent data breaches at Target, Home Depot, or P.F. Chang’s could make you vulnerable — or are just fed up with hearing about a new data theft every other week and want some peace of mind — you may be yearning for a foolproof solution. The simplest thing to do: Put a freeze on your credit.

Here’s how it works. Whenever anyone applies for credit, the would-be lender pulls their credit report from one of the three bureaus, Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. If you institute a security freeze at each of the three credit bureaus, nobody will be able to access your credit report, so identity thieves won’t be able to open any new accounts in your name — period.

This action is not without its downsides, however:

There are some downsides to this option. First, there’s the cost. The price of a security freeze varies by state — you can check yours here— but it’s typically $5 to $10 per credit agency. (It’s often free for people who have already been victims of identity theft.)

More of a problem is that whenever you want to allow someone to check your credit, you’ll need to pay a fee to lift the freeze. And that may happen more often than you expect because your credit report gets pulled not just for credit applications but often when you sign up for a cell phone contract or apply for a new apartment or job as well. The credit agencies will give you a password to lift the freeze and charge up to $12 each time you do it — so this option can get pricey.

However, ask anyone who has been the victim of identity theft to describe the time and aggravation that went into cleaning up their financial lives and I bet they will tell you these $12 charges are well worth it.