A new tool should help people in the battle against identity thieves.
As of September 21, consumers can take advantage of a new federal law that allows them to protect their personal financial information at the three major credit agencies by ordering a "credit freeze" - at no cost.
Also known as a security freeze, a credit freeze restricts access to your credit file, making it more difficult for criminals to open fraudulent new accounts or borrow money in your name. The new law also allows you to freeze your children's credit files at no cost to prevent identity theft.
The Minnesota Commerce Department is trying to get the word out about this new option. It offers these tips for getting a free credit freeze:
What's new? Before the new law, ordering a credit freeze often involved a fee. Now there is no cost to freeze and unfreeze your credit file with each of three major credit agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion).
What do I need to know? To be most effective, a freeze must be placed separately at each of the three credit agencies. Your credit freeze will stay in place until you request that it be lifted.
Be aware that you will want to unfreeze your credit file if you are applying for credit or opening a new account such as a car loan, home mortgage or sometimes even a cell phone or cable TV account.
What do I need to do? You can order a credit freeze online, by phone or via the mail from each of the credit agencies. If you do it online or by phone, the freeze will take effect on the next business day. Here are the links to getting it done:
• Experian - experian.com/freeze/center.html
• TransUnion - transunion.com/credit-freeze
When you set up a freeze, you will get a personal identification number (PIN) from each credit agency. You can use this PIN at any time to temporarily unfreeze your account whenever you apply for new credit. The credit agency must unfreeze your file within one hour of you notifying them. You can always re-freeze your credit file, again at no cost.
What is a child credit freeze? A child credit freeze allows you to freeze your child's credit file until he or she is old enough to use credit. With the new law, you can get a free credit freeze for your children under age 16. You must order a child credit freeze with each credit agency.
What about fraud alerts? When you have a "fraud alert" with a credit agency, it tells any business that runs your credit that they should check with you before opening a new account. It does not protect you as much as a credit freeze, but it is an option for people who prefer not having to freeze and unfreeze their credit files.
A fraud alert is free, but it used to last only 90 days. With the new law, an initial fraud alert will now last for one year. Identity theft victims can still get an extended fraud alert for seven years.
If you place a fraud alert with one of the credit agencies, it will automatically create an alert at the other two.
What else should I do? Even with a credit freeze, it is still important to regularly monitor your credit card and other financial accounts and immediately report any suspicious transactions.
It is also a good idea to check your credit report periodically to make sure it is accurate and does not include any accounts you are not aware of. You are entitled to one free credit report each year from each of the three credit agencies. You can order it at annualcreditreport.com
The Federal Trade Commission has a website (IdentityTheft.gov) with more information about how to prevent identity theft and what to do if you are a victim.
If you believe you may have been the victim of an identity theft scam or fraud, contact the Minnesota Commerce Department's Consumer Services Center by email at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 651-539-1600 or 800-657-3602.