NEW YORK, Sept 12 (Reuters) - In the wake of the Equifax Inc data breach that has exposed an estimated 143 million customer records to hackers, consumer credit experts have been recommending freezing one's credit as a protection against identity theft.
But most people will probably not heed the call as it is simply too hard.
The process is cumbersome and can cost money, and you would need to approach it as a life-long commitment, since your risk for identity theft is not going away anytime soon.
Credit freezes protect you from pure identity theft - when somebody sets up new accounts in your name, potentially ruining your credit score.
It does not, however, protect you from other forms of fraud like a thief running up charges on your credit cards, stealing from your bank account or hijacking your tax refund. So you still need to be vigilant about keeping track of your accounts, which most people fail to do even though it requires minimal effort.
Paying a monthly fee for a credit-monitoring service is the next step up, but that only alerts you to new accounts and does nothing about them. Identity theft resolution services can walk you through the steps to clean up your accounts if you are attacked; however, that itself will not block access to thieves.
Freezing your credit goes the final mile. Credit card expert Matt Schulz, senior analyst for creditcards.com, calls freezes the "nuclear option" for good reason.
A credit freeze requires individuals to contact each of the three consumer credit bureaus - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - and go through their respective processes to turn off access to your accounts.
To put a freeze in place, you will need to prove your identity through various means, like providing your prior addresses or perhaps a copy of identification such as your driver's license, says Lynnette Khalfani-Cox, CEO of askthemoneycoach.com and author of "Perfect Credit."
The fee will range from free to $10, depending on your state of residency. Equifax is offering free freezes for a month.
Once your credit is frozen, thieves should not be able to open up new accounts, like a car loan or a mortgage using your Social Security number. You also will not be able to get new credit - including getting a retail store card on the fly for a great sale or a new cell phone contract - unless you unfreeze the account first.
You manage thaws and re-freezes via web portals maintained by the credit bureaus, with credentials they assign to you, says Robert Siciliano, CEO of idtheftsecurity.com, an independent consulting company. There may be a nominal charge (currently about $5) for the process each time you do it, he says.
Siciliano has frozen his credit three times since 2008, when the service first became available. If he needs to borrow, he calls ahead to the place where he needs credit, such as an auto dealership, and finds out which credit bureau they use. Then Siciliano thaws that account.
But human behavior being what it is, only one in three Americans have ever even checked their personal credit reports, notes Khalfani-Cox, and less than 1 percent have used credit freezes since their inception.
Just two of her clients have gone through the process after they were victims of identity theft.
Even Khalfani-Cox, a credit and debt expert, has never frozen her own credit. She intends to, however, if it turns out that her data was compromised in the Equifax breach and is waiting to hear back from the company.
"I absolutely will, it's not even a question," she says. "I’m on the side of doing more even if you have to pay a little bit for it." (Editing by Lauren Young and G Crosse)