Personal Finance

Senate banking bill would make credit freezes free

Key Points
  • The legislation, part of a larger bill that eases regulations on banks and mortgage lenders, would let consumers freeze and unfreeze their credit reports without paying a fee.
  • Right now, just a few states mandate that protection be offered for free. The rest charge anywhere from $2 to $10 per freeze at each of the credit-reporting firms.

At least one positive thing could come from the last year's massive Equifax data breach: The fees that consumers shell out to protect their credit reports could be going by the wayside.

A provision included in a Senate bill that's headed for likely passage in the next few days would require credit-reporting firms to let U.S. consumers put a freeze on their credit reports without paying for it.

Freezing your credit report generally blocks outside access to your file. This means a scammer can't get a loan or establish credit using your personal information because the potential lender is unable to check your report and typically will reject the application.

Credit reporting company Equifax Inc. corporate offices are pictured in Atlanta, Georgia.
Tami Chappell | Reuters

At last count — the total was revised upward by 2.4 million last week — as many as 147.9 million consumers were affected by the cyberattack at Equifax, which was revealed last September. The personal information compromised in the breach include names, birth dates, Social Security numbers, addresses and some driver's license numbers.

The congressional effort to require free freezes is part of a larger measure, S. 2155, which rolls back some banking regulations put in place after the financial crisis that rocked the U.S. economy a decade ago. While consumer advocates have long sought free credit freezes, they are opposed to this provision being part of a bill that eases regulatory requirements and oversight of banks and mortgage lenders.

"I think free freezes are good, but not when it's part of a bill with other things that puts consumers and the economy at risk," said Mike Litt, consumer campaign director at consumer advocacy group U.S. PIRG.

Supporters of the bill, however, say it will make it easier for consumers to access loans and will encourage economic growth.

Litt also said that by imposing a national standard for credit freezes, it prevents states from taking additional steps to give consumers better control of their own credit reports. Additionally, the provision does not require passwords or PINs — only identifying information — when a freeze is lifted, which Litt said could make it easier for criminals to access your credit report.

How to protect yourself from identity theft in the wake of Equifax data breach
How to protect yourself from identity theft in the wake of Equifax data breach

As it stands now, only a few states require credit freezes to be free. U.S. PIRG estimated last year that consumers collectively would face a $4.1 billion tab to freeze their credit reports at the three largest firms: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. In states where fees are legal, consumers can pay anywhere from $2 to $10 per freeze.

Additionally, some states currently allow credit reporting firms to charge a fee for a temporary removal of your freeze when you want a lender to check your credit report so you can get a loan.(Some states waive these fees for certain consumers, such as seniors or active-duty military members.)

The Senate bill, as amended, would also ban charging consumers for a temporary removal of a freeze.

The provision also would extend short-term fraud alert to one year from the current 90 days. These alerts are separate from freezes, and mean that a lender seeking to approve an application must first contact you to verify the request is from you, not an imposter.

With a fraud alert, you only need to contact one credit reporting firm, which in turn is legally obligated to share that with the others. It also already is free.

If S. 2155 clears the Senate — which it is expected to do with some bipartisan support — it would need to be approved by the House as well before it could go to President Donald Trump for his signature.

— CNBC's Kayla Tausche contributed to this report.

More from Personal Finance:
Digital wallets are safe, yet Americans remain wary
50 percent of adults have not checked their credit since the Equifax breach
Equifax extends free credit freezes to June 30