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After mega hack, Equifax launches free 'Lock & Alert' service — with mixed results

NBC News logo NBC News 2/9/2018 Herb Weisbaum
Image: EquifaxThe Equifax building in Atlanta on Sept. 8, 2017. © Provided by NBCU News Group, a division of NBCUniversal Media LLC Image: EquifaxThe Equifax building in Atlanta on Sept. 8, 2017.

Equifax is fighting to regain consumer trust, following one of the largest and most damaging data breaches in history, when the credit reporting giant unwittingly exposed sensitive personal information belonging to 145 million people.

The company recently extended the deadline for consumers to put a free freeze on their Equifax credit file — or unfreeze it for free — until June 30, 2018. And it just rolled out a new service called Lock & Alert that enables users to limit access to their Equifax file.

In announcing the service, Paulino do Rego Barros, Jr., Equifax interim CEO, said Lock & Alert allows consumers "to help control access to their personal Equifax credit report in an easy and convenient way."

Lock & Alert is available to anyone 18 or older with an Equifax credit report — and the company promises the service will be free for life. Those who sign up will not be bound by the company's mandatory arbitration clause for other Equifax products.

Registration is easy — when it works

The Equifax website talks about the convenience of Lock & Alert, but some have found it a challenge to get started.

When NBC News tried to sign up, we got an error message: "Please give us a call. We cannot complete your registration at this time."

Equifax customer care said everything was OK, but when we tried to sign on, we received another error message: "We are experiencing technical issues. Please try again later."

After several more failed attempts, we made another call to customer service and were told to expect an email in 24-48 hours with a link to log in. That email never arrived. When we later logged on again, we were able to gain access.

"I think it's fair to say as with any service we did have some initial operational issues shortly after the launch," Nancy Bistritz-Balkan, Equifax's director of public relations & communications, told NBC News. "But our team has been working around the clock to document the issues and address it appropriately."

A lock is not a security freeze

A lock and a freeze both help prevent some forms of identity theft because they stop a criminal from accessing your credit report. That means no new accounts can be opened in your name until that freeze or lock is removed — no new credit cards, no new bank accounts or loans, and no new wireless or cable TV accounts. Companies you have an existing relationship with won't be affected by a lock or freeze.

Alternatively, if you want to apply for credit — you'll have to open your credit file to allow the potential lender to access it.

With a freeze, that means unfreezing the account and then refreezing it once the credit check is done. This can be done very quickly online or by phone. Typically, it costs $3-$10 (depending in which state you live) for each of these transactions, but Equifax will do this for free through June 30.

For those who enable Lock & Alert, the account can be opened and locked, for free for all time.

But why create a new product? Why not just do what consumer advocates have lobbied for: Give people the ability to freeze and thaw their Equifax accounts for free?

"We wanted to deliver a service that is a useful and convenient option for consumers," Paul Zurawski, senior vice president of external affairs, wrote in an email. "We're just making that [Lock & Alert] another option."

With both a freeze and a lock you can still receive pre-approved credit card offers. (Note: These credit offers can be stopped by going to optoutprescreen.com.) But privacy experts point out that with a lock, you give the credit bureau permission to use your sign-up information for marketing purposes.

"Sign up for Lock & Alert and Equifax can use your information for all sorts of other marketing purposes or share that information with other financial companies that want to sell you something, said Mike Litt, consumer campaign director with the U.S. Public Interest Research Group. "With a freeze, they're not able to do that."

Unlike a freeze, which is your right under law, a credit lock is subject to the conditional terms set by the credit bureau and those terms can be changed at any time.

"It's important for people to know that their consumer rights are on firmer ground with a freeze than a lock," Litt told NBC News.

Don't forget TransUnion and Experian

Whether you lock or freeze your account at Equifax, you still need to deal with the other two major credit bureaus: Equifax and TransUnion. Both charge the standard fee ($3-$10, except where required by law to be free) for placing a freeze and removing it.

TransUnion also offers a free locking service called TrueIdentity. It's similar to Lock & Alert — allowing real-time control of your credit report — but it also includes free monitoring and free access to your TransUnion credit report.

Experian does not offer a free locking program.

Consumer advocates would like to see all three credit bureaus provide free freezes for everyone.

"The bureaus just aren't decent enough to do something for once that's for the good of consumers without any profit from it," said Neal O'Farrell, executive director of the Identity Theft Council. "They could have said we'll just make freezes free, but instead Equifax and TransUnion seem to be trying to flip consumers away from a freeze by making a lock appear to be easier."

Bills to require free freezes have stalled in Congress. Some state legislatures are now considering free-freeze legislation.

The bottom line

The locking products offered by Equifax and TransUnion are a free and simple way to fight back against identity theft — and clearly, better than doing nothing.

"They're not quite as robust as a freeze, but perhaps the ease of use for the consumer is worth it," said Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. "If you don't want to get a credit freeze because you don't want the hassle or can't afford it, those roadblocks are removed with a lock. However, it doesn't stem the flow of information about you for marketing purposes, and that's something you'll need to consider."

Adam Levin, founder of the digital security company CyberScout and author of "Swiped," cautions that while freezes and locks are both helpful tools in the fight against identity theft, they are not silver bullets.

"They will not stop scammers from using existing credit accounts, committing tax fraud or refund diversion, fraudulently accessing medical care or committing crimes in the name of the victim," Levin told NBC News.

"At the end of the day, the ultimate guardian of the consumer is the consumer. Practicing safe cyber-hygiene on a daily basis is key, including guarding your personal information, using long and strong passwords, enabling two-factor authentication, securing your mobile devices with up-to-date software and signing up for transaction monitoring alerts for your bank accounts and credit cards," he advised.

Herb Weisbaum is The ConsumerMan. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter or visit The ConsumerMan website.

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