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Smart Money Podcast: How to Freeze and Monitor Your Credit to Help Prevent Identity Theft


Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast, where we answer your real-world money questions. In this episode:

Learn about navigating retirement joyfully and how to defend against identity theft with credit freezing and monitoring.

How do you embrace retirement when it’s time to retire? How can you use credit reports and credit monitoring to protect your financial identity? Hosts Sean Pyles and Sara Rathner discuss transitioning into retirement and safeguarding against identity theft to help you understand the emotional and practical aspects of retiring and the crucial steps to defend your financial information.

This Week in Your Money: Recently retired podcast alum, Liz Weston, joins Sean and Sara to discuss her transition into retirement. She offers tips and tricks on overcoming fear of the unknown, ensuring financial and health insurance plans are in place, and finding fulfilling post-career activities.

Today’s Money Question: Listener Catie joins Sean and Sara to share a story about identity theft and to ask how she can safeguard herself from similar issues in the future. Sean and Sara discuss the necessity of credit freezes, strategies to monitor credit reports, and adopting vigilant password practices. They also explain how you can freeze your credit with relative ease, retrieve a copy of your credit report for free as often as once a week, and weigh the decision of whether to monitor your own credit or outsource it to a credit monitoring service.

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Episode transcript

This transcript was generated from podcast audio by an AI tool.

We spend years saving up for retirement, but what’s it like to actually cross that threshold into a new phase of life?

In this episode, we’ll explore the other side, with a very special surprise guest.

Welcome to NerdWallet’s Smart Money podcast. I’m Sean Pyles.

And I’m Sara Rather. So, listener, this podcast runs on your money questions, and maybe a little bit of coffee. We tackle everything, from how artificial intelligence might change the way you manage your finances, to how to choose a new credit card, and so much more.

So, send us the money questions that you’re wondering about. You can text your questions or leave a voicemail on the Nerd Hotline at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-N-E-R-D, or you can email your questions to [email protected].

This episode, Sara and I talk with a listener about her experience with identity theft, including how she can protect herself from scammers who want to use her personal information for financial gain.

But first, we are exploring retirement. Recently retired Smart Money host, Liz Weston, is back with us to talk about retired life. So, Liz, welcome back to the podcast. I hope we didn’t disturb you while you were luxuriating poolside.

Well, it’s a little rainy here in Los Angeles, so yes, I had to put down the iced tea and come back inside.

That’s a shame. Liz, we are so glad to have you back with us, and you recently wrote a column titled, “Retiring Wasn’t Easy, Even After Years of Writing About It.” And some days, retiring sounds like it would be the easiest decision in the world. No meetings, no emails, just vibes and iced tea poolside. So, why was retiring a hard decision for you?

I really didn’t expect this, Sara, because like most of us, I’ve been saving for retirement for a while. Most of us on this podcast, I should say. And it was just sort of this goal out in the future, and as it grew closer, I started to realize, I’m not exactly sure what it’s going to look like. And I really love what I do. I love writing about personal finance. I loved being on the podcast. I loved helping people with their financial problems. So I wasn’t really eager to get away from doing that. On the other hand, we all know that time is not infinite, and our health is not infinite, and I didn’t want to keep working long past the point where it made sense and not get to enjoy this retirement that I’ve been saving for.

Yeah. So Liz, in your column you wrote that making this decision felt like jumping off a cliff. I’m wondering how you eventually overcame your hesitation and took the plunge.

Well, I actually followed my own advice for once, which was talk to a financial planner. So we started that process, and we’ve had this planner for a while, and she’s been telling us for a while that financially we were squared away. So that really helped, knowing that I was making a smart decision that way. Part two was the health insurance part of it. I’m not Medicare age yet, so we had to figure that out. With her help, we did that.

And then it just became a matter of, okay, am I ready for this huge transition? I have been a personal finance columnist for many decades. It’s a big part of who I am. So I had to look back on my career and go, okay, have I done what I wanted to do? The answer to that was yes, and I was still holding back.

And then, as you guys know, we lost a former colleague, Des Toups. He died last summer at 61. And Des and I had talked so many times about retirement and what we wanted to do in retirement, and also that trade-off, of do you retire too early and wind up running out of money? Do you retire too late and end up running out of time and health? And that’s a hard balance to make because we don’t know the future. We don’t know what’s going to be coming up. So the fact that he didn’t get to enjoy any of his retirement was kind of the shove that I needed to leap over that cliff.

Did you find that you had any reservations around what you would be doing in retirement, or how not being a worker 9-5, giving personal finance advice, would change your sense of identity?

That’s what I did worry about quite a bit. I’m a lot less worried about it now, but now we’re only two weeks in, so let’s get a little bit farther down the line. I’m still writing a Q and A for the Los Angeles Times, so I’m still keeping my hand in there. And we are doing a whole house remodel, so that’s coming up starting this summer. That’s going to keep me plenty busy. Plus my husband is still working. He’s an artist. He teaches workshops, and we’ve got workshops planned in Europe. We spent two months there last year. We’re going to spend three months there, at least, this year. So I think I’ll be staying plenty busy for now, and if anything, I may need to take a vacation from my retirement in a few weeks.

I mean, if you need a companion in Europe to just drink wine with you, I humbly offer my services.

I’ll squish you into one of our suitcases.

I’m very good at slow meandering walks through beautiful European cities. I’m just saying.

So Liz, in describing what you have planned at least for the next couple of months in your retirement, another thing you talk about in your column is focusing on not just what you were retiring from, but what you were retiring to. So, how can people begin to think about how they’re going to spend their time in retirement and what they’re going to focus on?

I think a lot of people, as far as I can tell, make the mistake of rushing away from work and not thinking about what they’re going to do with their time. So I think it is really important to think about what work gives you and how you’re going to replace that. So, how are you going to replace the social interactions? How are you going to replace that sense of purpose? How are you going to replace the structure? Because we’ve all heard about people who retired and like, two weeks later came back, like “Aah! I can’t stand this!” I think most people are fine. I think most people figure it out.

As for me, I needed to do a lot of research, so I started reading books written by people who have either been through this process or contemplated this process. A really good one is Barbara O’Neill’s Flipping A Switch, and she talks about all the different ways that retirement is different from working that you might not think about, including the idea of drawing down your money, which can be really scary for those of us who are good savers.

Another great book is Steve Lopez’s Independence Day. Steve Lopez is a former colleague at the LA Times, and he has been contemplating retirement for a while. He has some great stories in that book. So, just thinking about these things and having a plan can really help with the nervousness, at least the nervousness that I felt about making this big transition.

And the other thing that really helped, Sara, was thinking about all the other major transitions that I’ve made, like getting married, buying a house, having a kid. You don’t know what the other side looks like, so there is a leap of faith involved. No matter how prepared you think you are, there’s always going to be things that you didn’t expect. So, knowing that really helped me make it easier.

Well, Liz, we know that a lot of people don’t get to choose when they retire. They’re forced into it due to some circumstance in their life, and they might not have as much time to prepare in advance of that. How do you think they can make the most of a change that they weren’t expecting?

Oh, yeah. We know people that got kicked out of workplaces a couple years too early, or a few years too early, and there was some research done… I think it was ProPublica that did it, about so many people who enter their 50s wind up losing their job and they never recover financially. So there are a lot of people that get there.

When I announced my retirement, I heard from a lot of friends I hadn’t heard from in a while, including some people who are on very small incomes who are having a great retirement. So I think it’s possible. You have to figure out your circumstances, figure out ways to make it work. And those books that I mentioned can probably help you acclimate to the situation that you’re in. You may have to have a part-time job for a while. You may have to live a little less extravagantly. But there are ways to do it, and from what I can tell, there’s a lot of beneficial aspects to retirement that more than make up for some of the things that might not be ideal.

So it seems like it comes down to, whether you choose to retire or are forced into it due to some circumstance outside of your control, it really comes down to knowing what your purpose is going to be in this new phase of life, and understanding how you might need to adjust your finances accordingly.

Yeah. I think one of the things that we all have trouble with is sort of accepting reality as it is. At least, I have trouble with that. And it takes a while to wrap the brain around, okay, this is the situation as it is. This is what I can change. This is what I can’t. And then getting up the courage to move forward and do the things that you need to do.

So I am hugely privileged to be able to do this at this age, with this level of comfort. Most people are not in that comfortable position. They’re going to have to make a lot more compromises than I had to. So I feel very, very blessed that I was able to do this at this time.

Yeah. You also worked very hard for it over many, many years, so take credit for that, too. Do you have any final words of wisdom for us?

Yeah. Stay tuned, I guess.

All right. Well, we’ll call you back if we hear anything exciting.

Well, Liz, thank you so much for taking time away from your well-earned retirement to chat with us a bit.

It was my pleasure. Thanks for the invitation, and good luck with Smart Money. I love what you two are doing.

Well, go and enjoy that iced tea. You’ve deserved it.

Before we move on to this episode’s money question segment, listener, we have an exciting announcement. We’re running a book giveaway sweepstakes ahead of our next Nerdy Book Club episode. Next month, we’re speaking with Ashley Feinstein Gerstley, author of the 30-Day Money Cleanse.

To enter for a chance to win our book giveaway, send an email to [email protected] with the subject “Book sweepstakes” during the sweepstakes period. Entries must be received by 11:59 PM Pacific time on February 29th. Include the following information: your first and last name, email address, zip code, and phone number. For more information, please visit our official sweepstakes rules page.

And now, let’s get on to this episode’s money question segment.

This episode, we’re joined by Catie, a listener who had a brush with identity theft. We’re going to talk with her about her experience and discuss how to protect yourself from shady actors.

Catie, welcome to Smart Money.

Hi. Thank you for having me.

So I know you have some questions for us around how scammers can try to access your information, how that relates to credit bureaus and how credit freezes come into play. But first, let’s turn to the story about identity theft that you and your family experienced. Can you tell us that story?

It all started on a trip to Italy that I wasn’t even on. My parents went over to Europe as a part of their vacation last year, and my dad had his wallet stolen. They realized it pretty quickly and immediately started canceling credit cards, and I was helping with whatever way I could since they were international and had a limited phone plan.

They managed to get most of it sorted and were able to enjoy most of the rest of the trip as best as possible, however, the week they returned, I received an email to my account with my dad’s name listed on it about enrolling in online banking. I initially didn’t think much of it, however, that same day I got a second email to my account with his name on it saying, “Thanks for applying for your new credit card.”

And it was a credit card company that I knew neither of us used, so thinking my social security number was out there and they just accidentally used his name, I exited the email and called the credit card company and got passed around a few times before I was finally told that there was nothing in my social security number, but some of my key details, like my email address and contact information, were being used, but they couldn’t provide me any more details on that because it wasn’t tied to my social security number.

Do you think that your information could have been in your dad’s wallet? Or how did your dad’s information and your information get conflated into these weird applications?

We still don’t know. It seems oddly suspicious that it was around the same time as his wallet being stolen, but it also doesn’t make sense how that information would come there. He doesn’t carry his social security card number or any details of my information. Eventually we had figured out through this process, because we got multiple more emails after this about credit card applications, we figured out he had his social security number and my contact information was somehow combined together that someone was using to apply for these cards.

But it could also have just been a coincidence of timing. Your dad happened to lose his wallet the same time someone who had his and your information started sending out these odd applications.

Yes. We’ve been a part of data breaches in the past. I guess it could always, they just finally hit our information and did it at the same time. So there’s always that disconcerting thought in the back.

I wonder if, you know how sometimes you try to look somebody up and there are those websites that do background checks on people, and it lists all of your former addresses? So it’ll say, “Catie might be affiliated with these other people,” and they’re relatives of yours who you lived with when you were younger. I wonder if maybe there’s a connection there, because sometimes your paths get crossed with your parents, or maybe siblings, because you used to share a house.

Definitely so, and I know that my dad and I have shared accounts in the past before when I was going through college and such. So, who knows at this point?

Yeah. But just to confirm, no one was able to actually open a line of credit, a credit card of any sort, in your name or your dad’s name as a result of this?

No. Thankfully, we caught most of them immediately, and the credit card companies also thought they were suspicious, and so they had flagged them, as well.

Okay, well, that’s a bit of good news in this, I suppose.

And so, what happened with them? Did the applications just stop, or what’s going on?

I think we had two more, and then another one recently, and they’ve sort of died down since. Like we said, they haven’t gotten further than the application process, but I guess they’ve moved on to another person, or they’ll try again later. But so far, there’s been nothing since that first few weeks of turmoil.

Okay. Well, I’m glad it’s died down a bit, but it’s still disconcerting that you’re maybe in some fraudster’s roster of people’s information they just pull from when they have nothing better to do besides try to scam people. So, what are your questions for us?

Yeah. I think after this entire experience, I sort of went down the rabbit hole on the internet in trying to figure out what I should do about freezing my accounts, and it turns out there’s three different credit bureaus, so really, what’s the difference between those credit bureaus, and do I need to freeze my credit on all of them, or just one?

So, each credit bureau may have slightly different information about you, because not every creditor reports your account activity to all three major credit bureaus. For example, you might not see a credit card or a loan show up at one or two of your credit reports from these credit bureaus. But for practical purposes, there isn’t much difference between one credit bureau to the next for the purposes of a credit freeze.

Yeah, and the three bureaus, if you haven’t heard of them before, are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, and they’re just three companies that collect information and data on consumers’ payment activity, and that information is used in part to calculate credit scores. So that’s basically what that is in a nutshell.

And when it comes to protecting your information from fraudsters, freezing your credit is the best thing you can do to prevent somebody from opening a new line of credit in your name. But the key is, you really do have to freeze your credit at all three bureaus, because if you only freeze your credit at Experian but not TransUnion or Equifax, it’s like you’ve locked your front door but you’re leaving a window open and the back door unlocked. You’re still vulnerable.

Freezing credit is actually a pretty quick process, and it doesn’t cost you anything. So this is a really great way to protect yourself from fraudulent accounts being opened in your name, and if you in the future want to apply for a new loan or a new credit card, you can go in at any time and unfreeze your credit temporarily to allow the hard credit inquiry to go through as part of the application process, and then you could refreeze it once you’re done. So this is something that you can do throughout time, basically, and just default to keeping your credit frozen, and then unfreeze it when needed.

And the key with having your credit frozen or unfrozen is that when you do freeze your credit, if someone tries to apply for a credit card and they have your social security number, or your dad’s social security number, or anyone’s really, the creditor, like a credit card company or a lender, will not be able to pull your credit profile from the credit bureau to determine if you qualify for that product. So as a result, these products won’t be opened in anyone’s name, and that’s really how it stops fraud.

So Catie, how familiar are you with the process of freezing your credit?

Well, like Sara said, it’s actually quite easy to do. The best way to go about it is making accounts with the three credit bureaus, again, Experian, Equifax, TransUnion, and simply freezing your account there. I have apps from these credit bureaus, and I can do it on my phone. It’s very easy. And unfreezing your credit is just as easy, too. So, that makes it handy if you do want to apply for a credit card. You can just unfreeze your credit temporarily, apply for that credit card, and then you can set it to refreeze after a certain day, if you’d like.

And as I mentioned, this is free to do, but here’s a little catch. The credit bureaus also have other services, like credit monitoring, that are not free. They might direct you to enter your credit card information as part of the freezing process if they want to try and upsell you on credit monitoring. So just be mindful of the fact that that might not be something you want to pay for. It’s certainly not something you have to have. It’s an add-on that some people like, but it’s not required. So just keep in mind that if you’re being asked to enter your credit card information, you have entered a new part of the site that is not part of freezing your credit. So just keep that in mind, you are not going to have to pay to do this.

Right. And my perspective on this is, these three credit bureaus have our information without us really electing to give it to them, and they are making money off of our personal information, so I do everything I can to not give them more of my money, since they’re already making plenty of money off of me. So if you do find yourself on a page where it’s asking you to enter your credit card to either access your credit reports or to freeze your credit profiles, go to a different page. You should not have to pay to freeze your credit or to get your credit reports.

Yes. If you want to access your credit reports for free, you can do so at annualcreditreport.com. That’s the official place to get it.

Yes. And I do really want to drive home why it’s so important to freeze your credit, and one number encapsulates that, and it is 147 million. That is how many people had their personal information exposed in the Equifax data breach back in 2017, and it’s now been roughly seven years since then, and it’s not like that data was recouped. It’s still out there on the internet. I think it’s a fair assumption that we all have some pretty personal, sensitive information out there on the internet, which is why we all need to take steps, like really easy steps, like freezing your credit, to try to protect ourselves.

So is there anything else I can do to protect my accounts other than freezing them?

Yes. So, freezing is a way to protect yourself proactively, meaning doing something before any sort of weird security issue rears its ugly head. A lot of the protection comes in being reactive. That means that you look at your credit reports on a regular basis to try to catch anything weird, any accounts you don’t remember opening, or any other information that seems inaccurate. And you can check your credit reports, like I said, annualcreditreport.com. You can access each one of them weekly. You don’t need to do it that frequently, but even quarterly or just a couple of times a year will put you ahead of the curve and hopefully make it so that you catch things before they become too much of a problem.

And another thing to do on the reactive side is to report any instances of fraud to the Federal Trade Commission. A lot of people who lose money to scammers feel a sense of shame around this and they don’t want to report what happened to them, but that can practically ensure that the scammers get away with what they did to you, and might be able to do it to someone else.

Did you communicate at all with the FTC or any sort of other enforcement bureau when you were dealing with the fraud that your family experienced?

I didn’t make any formal statement to a government entity, but I did have a hotline through my credit card companies, which I notified them about and shared with them the leak and the email.

That’s a good step too, actually, contacting the bank, the credit union, even the merchant that supposedly “contacted” you, and you don’t know if it’s necessarily them, because these companies all have fraud departments, and they do investigate these situations. And so, if you can provide that feedback to them, that hey, somebody’s trying to impersonate you and contact consumers, they can hopefully beef up their protocols and stop some of these scams from happening. Not all, unfortunately, because these things are really sophisticated. But the more information they have too, the better.

Catie, do you have any other questions for us around how you can protect your information, or how to navigate the experience that you and your family went through?

Yeah. I think one other question is really around what other trustworthy third-party applications or programs, or even paid services I can use to proactively search for any of my information on the dark web. I’ve obviously googled this and there is a ton of information that was given back to me, and it’s sort of hard to wade through it all myself.

Yeah. Well, there are some reputable companies out there than can help try to give you peace of mind and let you know if you have your information in various places like the dark web. LifeLock is one. ID Shield. ID Watchdog. But realize again, these are more on the reactive side. They can’t really prevent your information from getting onto the dark web. They’ll just let you know if it’s there, so you can, in that case, take steps to really, again, freeze your credit to try to prevent someone from using the information that they have.

At NerdWallet, our house view is that paying for one of these services, because you do have to pay for them, may be worth it if you know that you are at high risk of identity theft or have already been a victim of it. Also, if you know that you’re just not the type of person to go through the effort, even though it’s minimal, to freeze your credit reports, it could be worth the cost. And similarly, if you know that you’re not going to take the time to actively monitor your credit, it might be a good idea to pay a company to do it for you.

Yeah, and you might also have some resources available to you already for free. For one thing, the credit cards you carry provide some consumer protections, like if there are any fraudulent charges that you notice, by law, you’re not liable for more than $50 worth of fraudulent charges on your card. But pretty much every credit card company waives that $50 completely, so all you have to do is keep an eye on your credit card statements, and if you see anything suspicious, report it as quickly as you can, because the credit card issuer will investigate, they’ll refund your money, and they’ll overnight you a new card. And so, that can hopefully nip those fraudulent charges in the bud really fast.

Well, that’s great to hear.

Catie, has this experience changed the way that you interact with your information and the internet in general, as you try to protect what vulnerable and sensitive information you do have out there?

I’d say definitely. I’ve gone down multiple rabbit holes on the internet, like I said, to just sort of educate myself about this, and I’ve picked up a lot more things that I haven’t done in the past. As you mentioned, Sara, I think I had some of my credit cards, I did notice that they offered a free credit check or online privacy protection program, so I’ve signed up for those now. I’ve changed all of my passwords. I’m a lot more vigilant about anything I get on an email, and I will check those or call a bank or credit card company directly now. So I’m paying a lot more attention to it, for sure.

Those are all great steps, actually.

Yeah, I was going to say, you’re doing everything that we would recommend, and freezing your credit can help protect you against future ID theft, but at NerdWallet, we like to recommend that other steps people can take to safeguard their identity include protecting your social security number. So if a doctor’s office asks you for it, you really don’t need to give it to them. So maybe, be very cautious with where and how you share that information.

Also, using really strong passwords and keeping them regularly updated is a good idea, as well as adding two-factor authentication, and generally just being vigilant and on the lookout for phishing emails and any mail of yours that might be stolen, like if you are expecting a tax form and it didn’t come, or the mail was torn when you received it, be extra careful about that, too.

And you mentioned contacting companies directly. If you receive an email from a bank or another company making some sort of claim to you, you’re right to find out, go online to the company’s website, find their official contact information and contact them directly. Don’t call any number that might appear in the email, and don’t click on any buttons in the email. And that way, you can find out if the bank was actually trying to reach you or not.

And the same goes if you get a call that appears to be from your bank, because phone spoofing is rampant nowadays. If you have a call come through and it looks like it’s from a fraud department at a bank that you’re familiar with, it might not be them. We’re actually about to do a series on the podcast about fraud where we talk with people who have experienced things like this, and one of the best things you can do to prevent yourself from falling victim to a scammer who’s trying to dupe you in this way is, like Sara said, calling them directly and say, “Hey, did you actually call me just now, or was that a scammer?” That way you know that you’re not speaking with someone who’s just trying to get your information and rip you off. You’re actually speaking with the legitimate organization that manages your finances.

Well, Catie, thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I would like to hear how you are thinking now, after this conversation, about ways to protect your privacy going forward.

Yeah. Well, thank you for having me. I think I’m definitely going to go freeze my credit on all three bureaus. I think I was only looking at one, so that was really good to know. And I’m just really going to take some of y’all’s advice and take some of these extra steps going forward and looking at some of these things, so it was really helpful hearing it.

Well, that’s great to hear, because at the end of the day, it will take you maybe an hour, maybe an hour and a half if you have a hard time logging in to these accounts, to freeze your credit profiles and set up any sort of other additional protection with your bank or a credit monitoring service, and that time is well-spent for the peace of mind and protection that you get from it.

Well, thank you so much for talking with us.

And that is all we have for this episode. If you have a money question of your own, turn to the Nerds and call or text us your questions at 901-730-6373. That’s 901-730-N-E-R-D. You can also email us at [email protected]. Visit NerdWallet.com/podcast for more info on this episode, and remember to follow, rate and review us wherever you’re getting this podcast.

This episode was produced by Tess Vigeland and me. Sara Brink mixed our audio. And a big thank you to NerdWallet’s editors for all their help.

And here’s our brief disclaimer: We’re not financial or investment advisors. This nerdy info is provided for general educational and entertainment purposes, and may not apply to your specific circumstances.

And with that said, until next time, turn to the Nerds!



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