By Arthur Vidro
The nation’s financial columnists often encourage us to freeze our credit ratings to prevent fraudulent activity by impostors claiming to be us.
This summer I mulled the matter. It’s been nearly 20 years since I authorized anyone to access my credit rating. I don’t rely much on it. So why not make it harder for fraudsters to access it?
Before taking action to freeze your credit rating, consider carefully how often or how soon you might be needing credit. By freezing the rating, you are making it more difficult to borrow quickly in the future. Your rating will probably be required if you seek a mortgage or a car loan.
Some prospective landlords will insist on running a credit check before renting to you. Also, freezing one’s credit rating makes it harder to apply for a new credit card, but it has no effect on the use of your existing cards.
Three major agencies handle credit ratings – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. It doesn’t accomplish much if you freeze your rating with just one or two of those companies. You have to freeze with all three. One at a time.
First I tried Experian. Their phone number is 1-888-397-3742. Despite my efforts to reach a human being, I had to settle for a robot that prompted me to push buttons to get the job done. But when I hung up, with my credit rating frozen, an irritated feeling gnawed at me. Something wasn’t right. Then I realized – I had not been given a means to unfreeze my credit rating. Unfreezing is done via a personal identification number (PIN) assigned by the company. At one point they had asked for my phone number, which I had provided. Maybe they normally text that information to folks who freeze, but I don’t have a phone that handles texts.
Looked like my Experian rating was frozen forever. Didn’t seem any point in calling them back, since they don’t allow human beings to answer the telephone, and robots would not be smart enough to solve this for me.
And if I never could unfreeze that rating, well, loan agencies would still have the two other major bureaus to give them information.
Ten days later I phoned TransUnion, at 1-833-395-6938. I was pleasantly surprised when I reached a real person. We spoke to each other, human to human, a refreshing feeling in today’s world. They froze my credit rating and provided me, over the phone, with a PIN to unfreeze the rating whenever I want. Dealing with TransUnion over the phone went as smoothly as possible.
Finally, I tried Equifax, at 1-888-298-0045. Somehow I eventually reached a human. But we hit a brick wall when she asked for my smartphone number. I don’t have such a phone. I was told this was needed so they could send me a PIN. I had trouble believing this, since credit freezes were possible for decades before smartphones came into existence.
But she told me no, a text was the only means for sending a PIN. They were not allowed to tell it to me over the telephone. Nor were they allowed to freeze my credit rating.
I asked for alternatives. She told me I could send them a copy of my Social Security card and a copy of my driver’s license, along with a cover letter stating what I wanted done, and then they would freeze the account.
So I hung up. I went to the computer to the Equifax website to see if there was some crevice I could wriggle through to get my credit rating frozen. But without a means to receive a text, no, there wasn’t.
Since the whole point of freezing one’s credit rating is to prevent ID fraud, it seemed risky to mail to a post office box the very documents scammers covet most – a driver’s license and Social Security number. The Equifax freeze went on the back burner.
Then I was surprised when a letter arrived from Experian, the first place where I had instituted a freeze. The letter contained a PIN for me to unfreeze whenever I wanted. I had not known this letter was being sent. I had not known a means for unfreezing would be provided. It was a relief to receive that letter.
Only then did I feel confident enough to mail Equifax copies of my Social Security card and driver’s license.
A few weeks letter I got the Equifax acknowledgement in the mail. My credit rating there was frozen, but they still did not provide a PIN. To unfreeze, their letter said, I must phone them, or create an account at their website (which I am loathe to do, since their website can be hacked), or mail the same proofs of identification to them, with a request to unfreeze.
I’ve dealt enough with Equifax. If I ever unfreeze, I will limit it to Experian and TransUnion. And whoever I authorize to run a credit check on me will have to be satisfied with reports from those two agencies.
In short, yes, you can freeze your credit ratings. But if you do not have a smartphone, you might be treated as a second-class citizen. And no matter how you slice it, Equifax makes the process to freeze and unfreeze more difficult than do their two chief competitors.
Arthur Vidro is one of The Eagle Times’ recurring financial columnists. His “EQMM Goes to College” appeared in the May/June 2021 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.