Michelle Singletary: Equifax breach gives us a deeper look into credit bureaus

Mike Stewart, Associated Press

This Saturday, July 21, 2012, photo shows signage at the corporate headquarters of Equifax Inc. in Atlanta. A Wall Street Journal report says that hackers broke into Equifax’s computer systems in March 2017, giving them time to probe vulnerabilities and eventually gain access to the data of 143 million Americans. The Journal cited a report from security firm FireEye sent to some Equifax customers, including financial firms.

If nothing else, the massive Equifax data breach should broaden our knowledge of how the credit bureau world works.

For example, until this cybercrime exposed 143 million consumers to identity theft, many people didn’t realize they could freeze their credit file to block new lenders from seeing their credit reports if they suspected they had been victimized. This action helps prevent thieves from opening credit in someone else’s name.

In response to the breach, Equifax is now offering a year of free credit monitoring through its identity-theft prevention service, TrustedID Premier. The service gives you the option to freeze or lock your credit file with Equifax, but note that it won’t do the same for the other two major bureaus, Experian and TransUnion, or for the lesser-known Innovis.

What caught my attention was a note from Equifax that you can either lock or freeze your file, but you can’t do both.

So what’s the difference between the two?

The difference apparently comes down to the ease and speed with which you can open and close your credit file. The bureaus make locking sound like the better choice, but is it?

Although the freeze is separate, the bureaus have created a lock as part of a service package that includes credit monitoring and other things meant to prevent or detect identity theft. Frankly, I’m still confused at why there’s a need for a lock. It’s just one more thing for us to figure out about a system that is already pretty opaque.

Experian’s “CreditLock” is a feature in its “CreditWorks” service, a monthly subscription product that offers credit monitoring and gives access to your FICO credit score online or on your mobile device.

In the description of its TrustedID credit lock…

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