Attention all Mainers: Freeze your credit; it’s free

If you’re like most people, you probably lock your house, your car doors, your iPhone — maybe even your office and locker at the gym.

But did you know that by default, your credit report is unlocked? That’s right — no PIN. No password.

Credit reports are compiled by the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) and are used by banks, lenders, and businesses to approve loans and credit cards.

Massive Equifax breach exposed personal information of 143M Americans

Last week Equifax announced a “cybersecurity incident” that exposed the personal information (names, addresses, birth dates, and social security numbers) of 143 million Americans, including more than 500,000 people in Maine.

That means cybercriminals now have everything they need to access your credit report and open new credit in your name.

“This is the most egregious data breach we have ever seen. It is as bad as it gets,” Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey said Thursday.

Fraud expert Bill Kresse said “this is the keys to the kingdom for an identity thief.”

BUT — in order to steal your identity and open those new accounts criminals need access to your credit report.

Do you see where we’re going here?

Credit freeze is FREE in Maine

If you lock/freeze your credit report, the bad guys can’t get in, pretend to be you, and set up fraudulent accounts in your name.

In most states, you have to pay a fee to each credit bureau to freeze your credit.

Maine is one of only 7 states where a credit freeze is free after a change to Maine law in 2015.

Credit monitoring vs. credit freeze

“Only the security freeze can prevent someone from opening a new credit account in your name,” said Mike Litt of U.S. PIRG.

So what about credit monitoring?

“People think that the problems of a data breach will be solved if they enroll in credit or identity theft monitoring,” said Jane Carpenter with Maine Identity Services.

Credit monitoring is usually offered to data breach victims for a limited time after the breach, but it only detects fraud after it happens and usually only monitors one of the three credit bureaus.

Carpenter and a whole slew of other consumer advocates, including the FTC, Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection, and U.S. PIRG encourage consumers to opt for a security freeze with all three credit bureaus instead.

In fact, the Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection suggests ALL Mainers should freeze their files.

“The crooks will lie in the weeds with that information that they’ve gleaned. They have it. They have your name, address, social security number, date of birth, and they’ll wait 3 or 4 or 5 years and then try to open up a credit account like a credit card or car loan, said David Leach, Principal Examiner, Maine Bureau of Consumer Credit Protection.

“And continue to check your account statements,” Carpenter added. “This breach involved a lot of records which will be up for sale on the internet for years to come.”

Contact each credit bureau to request security freeze

**Due to high website traffic, many consumers are getting error messages when trying to place a security freeze online**

A credit freeze does not affect your credit score or your ability to use your credit or debit cards.

If you want to open new credit, you will need to lift the freeze. When you set up your account, you’ll get a PIN that will temporarily “thaw” your file and allow access.

Jon Chrisos

About Jon Chrisos

Award-winning journalist Jon Chrisos is the investigative and consumer reporter at CBS 13 in Portland. He also anchors weeknights at 5:30. Chrisos is “On Your Side” investigating the stories that make a difference in your life. He’s passionate about helping those who’ve been wronged, exposing government waste, asking tough questions, and uncovering the truth.