Thanks to a massive hack of Equifax last year that led to new consumer laws, we can now freeze — and unfreeze — our credit for free.

The major credit bureaus were forced by Congress to make freezes easier and free after that data breach that compromised as many as 145 million Americans.

Federal legislation passed last May — the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act — lets consumers contact the three major credit reporting agencies and place a free freeze on their credit file or those of their minor children.

By restricting access, a credit freeze makes it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts in consumers' names.

Credit freezes don't affect current credit. You still make payments every month, and you still use your current credit cards and accounts. Once you have a freeze in place, however, you can't get more credit to buy stuff.

So what if you want to lift it to finance a purchase like a fridge or a new house? That's where another feature of the new law kicks in.

Not only will it be free for consumers to freeze credit, but they can lift that freeze for free, too — and in a hurry. If a consumer asks for a freeze online or by phone, the credit reporting agency has to put the freeze in place no later than the next business day. If the consumer wants to lift the freeze — for example, to finance a new phone or fridge — that has to happen within an hour.

The law takes effect Sept. 21, and the Federal Trade Commission will also post links to credit bureau web pages at IdentityTheft.gov.

I called all three bureaus, which allowed me to freeze and unfreeze my credit by phone (using my address and Social Security number). You can also freeze online at their websites set up specifically for this purpose, but you may need to set up an account and a PIN number.

In the past, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion charged fees to freeze credit reports to help protect against fraud. In states like Pennsylvania, which had not already outlawed the fees, the freezes cost up to $10, and I paid each credit rating agency separately last year. Now, it's free.

Here are some other goodies that are part of the new law:

  • Parents can freeze credit for a minor child up to age 16.
  • Free credit monitoring for all active-duty service members.
  • A provision, based on a bipartisan bill previously introduced, ensures veterans are not wrongly penalized by medical bill payment delays by the Department of Veterans Affairs.

Protecting seniors against scams

AARP Pennsylvania volunteer Theresa Thomas-Trainer has been trained to educate Philadelphians about fraud. She has a speaking engagement on Monday, Sept. 24, at 7 p.m. at the Northwest Village Network at the Lovett Library, 6945 Germantown Ave., at Sedgwick Street.

Her talk is free and open to the public. She's a great resource for seniors especially and how they can protect themselves against frauds, including the "grandparent" scam, the "romance" scam, and others.

It's also worth signing up for alerts from the AARP Fraud Watch Network: www.aarp.org/fraudwatchnetwork.

If anyone would like to schedule a free fraud prevention presentation in the Philadelphia area, email AARP Pennsylvania at paaarp@aarp.org. Or call Jacklyn Isasi, AARP Pennsylvania communications director, at 267-825-9928.

How to contact the major credit bureaus