Many readers wrote in this past week to say they’d finally been officially notified that their fingerprints, background checks, Social Security numbers, and other sensitive information was jeopardized in the massive data breach discovered this year at the Office of Personnel Management (OPM). Almost as many complained that the OPM’s response — the offering of free credit monitoring services for up to three years — won’t work if readers have taken my advice and enacted a “security freeze” on one’s credit file with the major credit bureaus. This post is an attempt to explain what’s going on here.
Earlier this week I got the following message from a reader:
“I just received official notification that I am affected by the OPM data breach. I attempted to sign up for credit monitoring services with the OPM’s contractor ID Experts at opm.myidcare.com, but was denied these services because I have a credit security freeze. I was told by ID Experts that the OPM’s credit monitoring services will not work for accounts with a security freeze.”
The reader continued:
“This supports my decision to issue a security freeze for all my credit accounts, and in my assessment completely undermines the utility and value of the OPM’s credit monitoring services when individuals can simply issue a security freeze. This inability to monitor a person’s credit file when a freeze is in place speaks volumes about the effectiveness of a freeze in blocking anyone — ID protection firms or ID thieves included — from viewing your file.”
I reached out to my followers on Twitter to gauge their reactions to this. I wrote: “Finish this sentence: Lifting a freeze to enable credit monitoring is like….” Here were some of the notable responses:
@sdweberg 10:22pm …shooting your rottweilers and paying the neighbors a monthly fee to “keep an eye on” your house.
@shane_walton 10:15pm …installing flash to watch a flash video about the evils of flash.
@danblondell 10:13pm …leaving the storm doors open to keep an eye on the tornado
@flakpaket 12:48am …leaving your doors and windows unlocked so that burglars can set off your indoor motion sensors.
@ShermanTheDadtaking your gun off safety to check and see if it’s loaded.
Removing a security freeze to enable credit monitoring is foolhardy because the freeze offers more comprehensive protection against ID theft. Credit monitoring services are useful for cleaning up your credit file *after* you’re victimized by ID thieves, but they generally do nothing to stop thieves from applying for and opening new lines of credit in your name.
As I discussed at length in this primer, credit monitoring services aren’t really built to prevent ID theft. The most you can hope for from a credit monitoring service is that they give you a heads up when ID theft does happen, and then help you through the often labyrinthine process of getting the credit bureaus and/or creditors to remove the fraudulent activity and to fix your credit score. Continue reading →