Q: Soon after the Equifax data breach in 2017, I froze my Experian credit report. As part of the settlement with Equifax, I received a free one-year subscription to Experian’s IDnotify. I just got an email from IDnotify saying that my IDnotify membership has expired and my Experian credit file has been unlocked.
Is my credit report with Experian still frozen? (I don’t recall ever “locking” my Experian credit report with IDnotify and I never “unfroze” my Experian credit report.) Is there a good way to determine if my Experian credit report is still frozen?
A: For those who got confused about how you could get identity theft protection through Experian for the data breach through Equifax, this is accurate. In late 2018, Equifax offered victims of its 2017 data breach an additional one year of identity theft monitoring, albeit through its competitor.
The short answer to your question about whether there is a good way to determine whether your file with Experian is frozen: You should be able to do this by phone by calling 1-888-EXPERIAN (1-888-397-3742). When you provide your Social Security number, date of birth, ZIP code and street number through the automated system, it should tell you whether you already have a security freeze.
Or you can do it online on Experian’s website.
If it’s not frozen, you can freeze it. If you are provided with a PIN, make sure you file it in a safe place and don’t lose it. It can be more challenging to thaw your file if you lose your PIN. The first time we had to thaw one of our files, we had the 15-digit PIN but got messed up initially because the first five digits are zeroes. The true PIN is really only 10 digits. If you want to thaw your file and don’t have the PIN or can’t get it to work, Experian does allow you in some cases to bypass this by entering security questions.
Now back to your case. If your Experian credit file isn’t frozen now, I don’t know whether you actually froze it back in 2017. You might have or you might have tried and gotten sidetracked by the option to “lock” it.
My theory, though: You did freeze your Experian file. What you received is a form letter. The form letter says your file had been locked, which is not the same thing as it being frozen. So I believe it’s still frozen.
After the Equifax breach and after federal law was changed last year to require the bureaus to allow consumers to freeze and thaw their files at no charge, the bureaus have done their darndest to perplex people and convince them that it’s better to have a “lock” or a “fraud alert” than a freeze. Or they’ve tried to convince consumers that locks and alerts and freezes are all the same thing. They’re not.
If you want a freeze, get a freeze. It prevents bad guys from opening credit accounts, getting cellphones or taking out loans in your name. Period. Locks and fraud alerts do not guarantee that. And locks and fraud alerts aren’t regulated by federal law. So they’re kind of like suggestions.
As for identity theft monitoring services, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with them, but they’re not the same as freezing your credit files.
My two big issues: Identity theft monitoring doesn’t prevent identity theft; it just alerts you after it’s happened. So it can give people a false sense of protection.
And identity theft monitoring generally doesn’t alert you to issues with existing accounts. Remember that 88% of identity theft involves existing accounts.
If you’re setting up credit freezes, you should be able to do all three bureaus in 15 minutes total. Don’t try to multitask. Just sit with a pen and paper to write down information. Make sure you have your Social Security number and other personal information in front of you.
To freeze or thaw your files by phone, you can reach the bureaus at: Equifax, 800-685-1111; TransUnion, 888-909-8872; Experian, 888-397-3742.
Murray is The Plain Dealer’s personal-finance writer. Because of the volume of requests, she cannot help everyone who contacts her. To reach her, call or text 216-316-7064 or email [email protected].com.
On Facebook: MurrayMoneyMatters / On Twitter: @teresamurray