(NBC) -- Remember how Equifax responded to its massive data breach in 2017, the one that exposed the personal information — including Social Security numbers and birth dates — of more than 146 million Americans? It offered victims free enrollment in its “TrustedID Premier” program to monitor their credit and lock their Equifax credit file.
Those who took advantage of this offer may not realize that their free TrustedID Premier subscription ended on January 31. On that date, those Equifax credit reports were unlocked.
Subscribers were offered a complimentary one-year extension of the lock and monitoring through Experian’s “IDnotify” program. The email alerts Equifax sent to subscribers provided two other options:
Sign up for the company’s free “Lock & Alert” service
Place a free security freeze on their account
Some consumer advocates have criticized Equifax for offering a remedial program with such a short lifespan.
"The breach of your Social Security number puts you at risk of identity theft for the rest of your life. So why did Equifax ever think a one-year service was good enough?” said Mike Litt with the consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG.
In a statement to NBC News BETTER, Equifax said it automatically unlocked those TrustedID Premier credit files to ensure consumers were able to “manage access to their Equifax credit report” once the TrustedID Premier product expired.
“Had we not, consumers would have been required to contact our call center and go through the authentication process in order to unlock their Equifax credit report in the future — something they may not have anticipated or remembered when applying for credit,” the statement said.
Equifax insists it is “committed to providing consumers with the resources they need to remain vigilant about monitoring their credit.”
Everyone who signed up for the Equifax TrustedID Premiere following the 2017 breach needs to remember that their risk of identity theft did not decrease just because a little more than a year has gone by.
“The potential impacts of Equifax’s breach could still be felt by those whose data was leaked,” said Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. “Breached personally identifiable information (PII) is similar to having an incurable disease: You may go into ‘remission’ and not have any problems for a while, but you’re still sick. In other words, your stolen data is still out there and could be used by identity thieves at any time.”
Consumer advocates are urging people to skip the Equifax Lock & Alert program and to freeze their files at Equifax and the two other major credit reporting agencies, Experian and TransUnion.
“The best thing you can do is place a credit freeze on your accounts,” said Nikhil Hutheesing, deputy money editor at Consumer Reports. “A freeze offers the best protection available and it carries strong legal protections. It’s also free, so there's no excuse not to do it.”
A credit lock is something created by the credit bureaus. Like a freeze, it also blocks access to your credit files, but these programs are not specifically regulated by federal law, and can be changed or modified at any time. Sign up for a lock and you can also expect to get a constant stream of marketing email.
To secure your credit files, you need to activate a security freeze at each of the three credit bureaus:
Freezing your credit file prevents anyone — potential creditor or crook — from accessing the information in that file. If you need to apply for credit, you can quickly and temporarily unfreeze your account until the credit check is done.
Note: Parents should also freeze their children’s credit files which have become a prime target for identity thieves. A new federal law that went into effect in September makes it easier to do that. More than one million children were victims of ID theft in 2017.
“Get your credit freezes today, U.S. PIRG’s Litt said, “Each day that goes by is another day an identity thief could open financial accounts and rack up a ton of debt in your name.”