There's so much data floating around in so many places that it can feel impossible to even know who has your information — let alone if it's being properly secured. Some people now just expect to have to regularly replace credit cards or sign up for identity theft and credit monitoring services offered to victims in the wake of exposure.
But there's at least one way to get ahead of the identity-theft game — and that's to freeze your credit.
The monitoring offered by many companies after breaches can typically only alert you when someone has already stolen your financial identity, experts warn. And they have a short shelf life — often extending only 18 to 24 months. Once they expire, the risk of having your identity stolen due to breached data doesn't just go away.
"Credit monitoring only lets you know after someone has opened a new account in your name. A security freeze, on the other hand, prevents new accounts from being opened in the first place," a new report from consumer advocates at U.S. PIRG explains.
Account creation fraud is basically the only type of identity theft you can actually stop before it happens, the report notes — which is where credit freezes come in.
The report recommends that all consumers, whether or not their information has been stolen as part of a major data breach, freeze their credit with the three major national credit bureaus. The process works by locking down your credit report so it can't be accessed by companies when a criminal tries to set up fraudulent accounts and services. And you can temporarily "thaw" it if you need to do something that requires a credit check, such as apply for a mortgage or a car loan.
"All states give you the right to place free security freezes if you can prove that you are an identity theft victim," according to the report. If you haven't been an identity theft victim before, there are seven states, including New York and Colorado, that will let you have at least your first freeze for free. Around the same number of states let consumers temporarily or permanently lift a freeze for free.
In general, credit freezes are available to all consumers for a cost of between $3 and $10 and another $2 to $12 to unlock them depending on your state, the report notes.
Yet credit freezes aren't a panacea: "It is important to note that neither credit monitoring nor a security freeze can detect or prevent unauthorized use of your existing credit accounts, tax refund fraud, medical fraud, or reputational or physical harm, by thieves," the report says.
Constant vigilance should still be the norm, including checking your credit scores with the free annual report that all three major credit bureaus are required by law to provide if you request them.