Data breaches and hacks happen so often nowadays, the mention of yet another produces barely a blip on the evening news. Even if one does make the headlines, it’s easily forgotten in a few days.
Unless you’re one of the millions of Americans whose information was stolen and then used — resulting in fraud, credit problems, even identity theft.
That’s not a headache you quickly forget.
It happened to me once. My first semester away at college, some cyber thieves got ahold of my credit card information and racked up thousands of dollars in fraudulent charges. It took me until well into my sophomore year to sort out the whole mess.
And it damaged my credit score for years — even though I wasn’t at fault.
That affected my ability to get other credit cards, a decent loan, even housing. (At age 26, I still had to have my parents co-sign on a lease.)
It was an ordeal that tainted my finances for nearly a decade. An experience I wouldn’t wish on my worst enemy.
So today, I am going to tell you the No. 1 thing you can do to protect your credit.
No matter who gets their hands on your information.
Put Your Credit File on Ice
If you don’t have a freeze on your credit file yet, I recommend finishing this article and immediately putting one in place. It is one of the smartest things you can do to protect your financial information.
Basically, a credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) prevents anyone from using your data to establish credit in your name. No one will be able even to run a credit check without your explicit permission, given in the form of a PIN that you create. That PIN is the only way to lift your credit freeze.
If you plan to apply for credit in the future — say, for a mortgage or car loan — you will have to contact each of the credit reporting agencies in advance and request that the freeze be lifted.
To put a freeze on your credit, you must contact each of the three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
This is important: You must go through the steps to freeze your credit with all three agencies. If you skip one, you’re leaving a gaping hole in your identity theft defenses.
But don’t worry. The instructions are simple. The process, painless. And it only takes a few minutes to do.
You can start right now.
Click on each of the links below. They will take you straight to the “how to” page for placing a credit freeze on your account on each agency’s website.
If you opt to submit a freeze request by certified mail, here is a simple form letter you can edit and use:
Dear AGENCY NAME,
I would like to place a freeze on my credit file. My name is:
My former name was (if applicable):
My current address is:
My former address was:
My Social Security number is:
My date of birth is:
I have enclosed photocopies of a government-issued ID and proof of residence (e.g., utility bill, lease, etc.).
I have included a police report verifying my identity has been stolen (if applicable).
I have included a check for the fee of $XX.
The price tag for placing a freeze on your credit varies by state. It usually ranges from free to around $10. But even if you have to shell out a few bucks, the benefits far outweigh the cost.
Just imagine how many hours you might spend on the phone trying to undo the damage from someone making a big purchase or opening a line of credit in your name. Sure, best-case scenario, you get all your money back. But your time costs money too — and you’re not getting that back.
So take a few moments today and put a freeze on your credit file. This critical step is the most important thing you can do to safeguard your identity.
Because let’s face it…
You can’t rely on individual companies to protect your information. You are your first — and only — line of defense. And a credit freeze is the ultimate shield.
Lucille St. John
Managing editor, Unconventional Wealth
Lucille St. John
Lucille St. John is the managing editor of Unconventional Wealth. A gentlewoman and a scholar, Lucille never received much in the way of a financial education. But what she lacks in fiscal knowledge she makes up for in taste.
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