By Ann Carrns

New York Times News Service

Americans will soon have the right to freeze their credit files free of charge.

On May 24, President Donald Trump signed the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which has received attention for loosening restrictions placed on banks after the financial crisis. The legislation, however, also made some changes to the federal law dictating consumer credit rules.

One helpful change, which consumer advocates had been seeking for years, will allow consumers to “freeze” their credit files at the three major credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — without charge. Consumers can also “thaw” their files, temporarily or permanently, without a fee.

“It’s a good thing,” said Susan Grant, director of consumer protection and privacy at the Consumer Federation of America.

Credit experts often recommend a credit freeze, also called a security freeze, as a way to protect personal information from credit fraud and identity theft. A freeze means that no one can get access to your credit files to fraudulently open a new account in your name. It also means that you can’t apply for new credit, either, unless you lift the freeze using a special personal identification number.

Currently, many consumers must pay to freeze — and to thaw — their credit files, unless they have already been a victim of identity theft.

Fees vary by state. Some states prohibit them, while others allow charges of $5 to $10. Because consumers must contact all three credit bureaus separately and pay fees to each to establish a freeze, the move can potentially cost $30.

The freeze change “has the potential to save consumers a lot of money,” said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Lawmakers, however, missed opportunities to make freezes more convenient, Stephens said. For instance, a freeze at one bureau can’t be automatically applied at the other two major bureaus. Consumers must still contact all three individually, so the process can be “very cumbersome,” he said.

The three credit bureaus all offer a service akin to a credit freeze, called a credit “lock.” The lock has the same effect as a freeze, but is marketed as being more convenient since consumers can typically lock or unlock their credit files using a smartphone app. But there may be drawbacks, including monthly fees in some cases.

Equifax has been offering free credit locks “for life” as part of its response to the huge data breach it suffered last year. TransUnion’s online menu has several, somewhat confusing options, including a free credit lock service called TrueIdentity. Another offering, Credit Lock Plus, charges about $20 a month and includes lock capability for both TransUnion and Equifax credit reports. Experian, according to its website, charges as much as $20 a month for a service that includes credit locks.

Anna Laitin, director of financial policy with Consumers Union, said the group generally recommended freezes rather than locks, since rules for freezes are established by law but those for locks, a service designed by the credit bureaus, may change. “Consumers will know what they’re getting with a freeze,” she said.

John Ulzheimer, an author and a consumer credit expert, said another benefit of the new law was that fraud alerts — a step below a freeze, in which the credit bureau has to verify your identity before releasing information — would remain in place for a year. Currently, alerts expire after 90 days, unless they are renewed.

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