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Freeze your credit reports? Sounds good, but tricky to do

Freezing credit is like renting a car. You just want the car, but they want to sell you redundant insurance. ... I found myself giving my Social Security number to a stranger over the phone — isn’t this what you’re NOT supposed to do?

Equifax allows users to freeze their credit reports by logging into their website.
Equifax allows users to freeze their credit reports by logging into their website. But is it a good idea?
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You may have read Monday’s column about how the state of Illinois notified me I was about to receive unemployment assistance I hadn’t applied for and aren’t entitled to, being one of those lucky ducks who still has a job. (In newspapering; go figure. That’s like computer programmers getting laid off while lacemakers get promoted.)

Everyone offered the same one-size-fits-all advice: Freeze your credit with the three credit agencies, Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.

I was hesitant. “Freeze your credit report” struck me as one of those directives, like “take the hajj to Mecca,” far easier to suggest than to do.

Reader, I went on the Equifax website. Maybe I was still in shock, but filling out the form didn’t work. I had to join first. So I joined, then gave up, applying my general unplug/reboot/wait philosophy so effective when coping with technology.

A few days later I tried again. Clicked on Equifax, then on the snowflake. (Get it? A freeze.) Soon, I was busily sharing the information whose dissemination got me in trouble in the first place.

Forms to fill out, all the while batting away offers to put myself on the hook for additional services I neither want nor need. Freezing credit is like renting a car. You just want the car, but they want to sell you redundant insurance and a complicated gasoline program. Even if you’re vigilant, you might end up with an unnecessary baby seat costing $4.95 a day. But a steady and emphatic “no, no, no” usually works.

At least this time it worked. Flush with success, next to Experian. They too have a snowflake. (Hint to graphic designers: an ice cube. A snowman. A popsicle.) But I soon found myself in the sort of web hell where you’re confronted with red boldface queries demanding information there is no obvious place to enter. “Please correct your second most previous address.” I tried the whole process again. And a third time, when it magically worked. (“He’s suffered enough,” pronounces some minor internet deity up in online Olympus, making it happen with a wave of the hand.)

“Congratulations,” the website told me, as if I had just had a baby, “Your file is now frozen and unavailable to third parties.”

Hooray. I almost quit there. Two out of three ain’t bad.

But imbued with can-do spirit I decided to go all the way, and plunged into TransUnion’s site, clicked their — all together now — snowflake glyph and began filling in information which, I noted with concern, required my Social Security number and a credit card. Info, info, info. Click, click, click.

It worked. Credit reports frozen, I had that single “ahhh” moment of relief that comes at the end of the horror movie when the monster is shot and stabbed and buried. Then I jumped into email, to see what I had missed in the half-hour I was opening a vein and gushing out financial information.

“Your receipt from TransUnion...” the subject line read. Oh that’s bad. Freddy Krueger, bursting out of the grave, razor glove raised high ...

“TransUnion Report, Score, and 3-Bureau Credit Monitoring $24.95.” Every month into eternity. As if aware they’re ripping people off, they give a number to their customer service team, which I called immediately.

“I’m going to need the email address,” a young woman began. “In order to process your request ...”

Space doesn’t permit me to recount the 20-minute call. I found myself reeling off my Social Security number to a stranger over the phone — isn’t this what you’re NOT supposed to do?

Eventually I yanked myself out of the $300-a-year program, got my freeze in place and was returned, panting, to regular life.

Here’s where I should make some pat conclusion, but I’m tumbling through the same information vortex you are. The next day I tried to claw back the Metra tickets that Ventra yanked out of my phone when they rolled out their new app. The good news is it’s possible, and only a little more stressful than leaping aboard a moving train.

Identity theft is the rare crime where the victim is forced to reenact the attack, doling out personal information, over and over, in the hopes of forestalling its repetition. It’s like asking mugging victims to hit themselves in the head and empty their pockets, to keep it from happening again.