With so many data breaches and financial transactions occurring with more online activity, your personal information can be easily compromised.
Having your identity stolen can wreak havoc on your life; your credit, in particular, could be severely damaged due to new credit accounts being opened in your name, any debts that are racked up, and late or missed payments.
However, there is one way in which you can protect your credit while sorting out the problems: a credit freeze.
What It Is
A credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) is a method in which you block access to your credit report for free -- without damaging your credit.
A credit freeze is a serious but important preventative measure to shield yourself from identity theft if your information has been compromised or if other methods of protection (such as fraud alert -- more on that later) haven't worked for you. Lenders and credit card issuers check your credit before deciding whether or not they will lend to you and if they can't view your credit score and reports, then they can't see the information needed to approve your application -- making it difficult for criminals to open up new credit accounts in your name.
However, you will still be able to access your own records and credit reports, along with your current creditors, debt collectors, and marketers (who are looking to send you offers). On occasion, specific child support or government agencies can view your information. You can also give permission for certain parties (such as potential employers) to check your credit.
Additionally, according to the FTC, a credit freeze won't limit you from doing the following:
- Stop you from getting your free annual credit report.
- Prevent you from opening a new credit account, applying for a job, buying insurance, or renting an apartment or home (remember, you will have to unfreeze your credit temporarily, permanently, or for a specific party to do any of these).
- It won't keep identity thieves from making any changes to your current accounts, so you'll still have to keep an eye out for any fraudulent transactions and changes in your bank account, credit cards, insurance, and more.
- It won't stop federal prescreened credit offers. Note: If you want to stop receiving prescreened credit offers, you can opt out for up to five years or permanently by going online or calling 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688), which are both operated by the nationwide credit bureaus.
When To Get A Credit Freeze
There are a few scenarios in which a credit freeze may be helpful for you:
- You're not currently looking for a credit card or loan. However, keep in mind that you can temporarily lift a credit freeze and implement it once you're done shopping for credit.
- You believe (or know) that your personal information -- especially your Social Security number -- has been compromised in a data breach. Keep in mind, though, that having your Social Security number stolen means that an identity thief could file a fraudulent tax return or create other major issues for you, so always keep an eye on your finances.
- You've implemented a fraud alert but still had your identity stolen.
Credit Freeze Vs. Credit Lock Vs. Fraud Alert
You might have heard a credit lock or fraud alert as alternative methods to protect your credit. However, there are a few key differences:
- Credit lock: A credit freeze and credit lock both block access to your credit reports, but a credit lock is a service offered by a credit bureau and may require a fee, depending on the bureau. Experian's and TransUnion's credit lock are part of a paid subscription product, while an Equifax credit lock is free. A credit lock, on the other hand, is required by federal law to be free. Credit locks are generally easier than a credit freeze to implement and lift (sometimes as simple as using an app), but they don't come with as many legal protections.
- Fraud alert: You can place a fraud alert on your credit report for free by requesting one from one of the three major bureaus (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion). If you request a fraud alert from Experian, they will then contact the other two to place alerts on their version of your credit report. This fraud alert gives you a free credit report and lasts up to a year, although you can cancel it sooner. A fraud alert allows creditors to acquire a copy of your credit report by taking the proper steps to verify your identity. This can prevent new credit accounts from being opened in your name but it may not prevent charges from being racked up in your existing accounts, so be sure to monitor your financial statements for fraudulent activity. There are three types of fraud alert: 1) fraud alert, which protects your credit from unverified access for a year, 2) extended fraud alert, a type of alert that protects victims of identity theft for seven years (unless you cancel it sooner), and 3) active military duty alert, which protects individuals in the military on active duty by implementing a one-year fraud alert that can easily be renewed.
Pros & Cons
Implement a credit freeze on your account comes with some major benefits:
- It's a free process that doesn't impact your credit score.
- It provides you some security against fraudulent activity by making it so identity thieves can't open new lines of credit in your name.
- You can still access your personal credit report, even if others can't.
However, a credit freeze does come with some drawbacks:
- While helpful, a credit freeze can't prevent all types of fraud. New accounts can't be opened in your name but you still need to monitor your financial accounts for any fraudulent transactions made (in case your personal information is already compromised).
- Unlike a fraud alert, you will have to contact all three bureaus individually to implement a credit freeze.
- You'll have to lift a credit freeze (also known as thawing your credit) before you can apply for a lease, insurance policy, or new credit account, such as a credit card or loan, which can take time. Requesting a credit thaw by phone or online can be done quickly (by law, credit bureaus are required to fulfill this within an hour), but requesting a thaw by mail can take several days.
- You'll have to keep track of your PINs to freeze and unfreeze, and if you lose it, you'll have to go through extra work to get a new one.
How To Freeze (And Unfreeze) Your Credit
Until 2018, individuals were required to pay a fee to place a credit freeze, but due to a new federal law, you can now freeze and unfreeze your credit for free.
In order to place a credit freeze, you'll have to contact each of the three major credit bureaus separately and go through their individual process. While all three bureaus have a different process, you can request a freeze online, by phone, or through the mail.
Each credit bureau issues you a PIN once you submit a request for a credit freeze; be sure you keep these in a safe location so you can lift the freeze later.
Note: If your child's identity has been compromised, you can freeze their credit as long as they are under 16. The credit bureau will create a credit file for your child as long as you request a freeze. You'll be required to provide the same information as you would for an adult, along with a copy of the child's birth certificate and proof that you are allowed to freeze their credit.
To place a credit freeze through Experian, you'll need to do so online, by phone, or by mail.
You can request a freeze online by visiting the Experian Freeze Center at www.experian.com. You'll have to verify if you're placing a credit freeze on your own personal account or for a minor.
You'll have to provide the necessary information (such as your Social Security number, photo ID copy, and proof of residence such as a utility bill) and verify your identity by answering a few questions before you can complete the process. You have the option of choosing your own PIN, but only if you complete the process online.
If you request a credit freeze by phone (at 888-397-3742), you'll have to provide the same personal information, and your PIN will be mailed to you.
You can request a credit freeze by mail by sending a letter to Experian:
Experian Security Freeze P.O. Box 9554 Allen, TX 75013
You will have to send information that includes your full name (with your middle initial), Social Security number, date of birth, addresses for the past two years, a copy of a government-issued identification card, and a copy of a bank statement, insurance statement, or utility bill.
You can implement a credit freeze through Equifax by phone, online, or by mail.
If you want to place a credit freeze by phone, you can call 800-349-9960. You'll have to provide your Social Security number, address, and state of residence. Once your credit freeze has been placed, Equifax will mail you the PIN.
To place a credit freeze online, you simply need to visit www.Equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services and submit your name, address, and Social Security number before being asked a few questions to verify your identity. After this, you'll be able to open a myEquifax account and place the credit freeze; you'll also be issued a PIN number.
If you want to implement a credit freeze by mail, you can send a request by mailing Equifax at the following address:
Equifax Security Freeze PO Box 105788 Atlanta, GA 30348
Be sure to include identifying personal information such as your name, address, Social Security number, date of birth, and copies of documents that verify your information, such as your passport, driver's license, or utility bills. After the freeze has been placed, your PIN will be mailed to you.
You can place a credit freeze through TransUnion by phone, online, or by mail.
If you want to request a freeze by phone, you can call TransUnion (at 888-909-8872). You'll need to provide your name, address, date of birth, and Social Security number, along with answering questions that verify your identity. TransUnion will mail you a PIN after the call.
To place a freeze online, you need to first create a TransUnion account by visiting www.transunion.com/credit-help and providing your name, address, email address, and Social Security number, along with answering some questions to verify your identity. Once the credit freeze is placed, you can choose a PIN or have one assigned to you.
If you want to place a credit freeze by mail, you can send your request to TransUnion:
TransUnion LLC P.O. Box 160 Woodlyn, PA 19094
Be sure to include your full name, address, date of birth, Social Security number, and copies of documents verifying your identity and information, such as a driver’s license or utility bill.
How To Lift A Freeze
If you're applying for new credit, you'll have to lift a credit freeze. Your creditor may only check one bureau, so you can always lift a freeze for that particular one. However, if you're applying for multiple lines of credit, planning on renting or buying a car or apartment, signing up for a cell phone plan or utility company, or even applying for new jobs, you may want to lift the freeze on all three bureaus.
Lifting a credit freeze is usually a quick and easy process: you simply have to visit your online account and submit a request or call each bureau to thaw your credit, which you can either lift temporarily or permanently.
If you request a credit freeze to be lifted online or by phone, it must done within one hour; if you request it by mail, the bureau must complete this within three business days of getting your letter.
As mentioned earlier, it's important that you keep your PIN safe to make this process smoother.
Protect Your Credit Further
Even if you place a credit freeze, you should still consider taking additional steps to protect your credit and your identity.
Keep track of your credit score, which you can do through a credit monitoring service or even through your bank.
You should also check your three-bureau credit reports regularly to monitor suspicious or unfamiliar activity. You can receive a free copy of each of your credit reports once a year at AnnualCreditReport.com. (Note: Due to COVID-19, you can have access to free weekly copies of your credit reports until April 2021.)
Can I freeze my credit for free?
Yes, in order to freeze your credit for free, you will have to do it through the three major bureaus: Experian (1-888-397-3742), Equifax (1-800-349-9960), and TransUnion (1-888-909-8872).
Is it safe to freeze my credit?
Absolutely. A credit freeze can prevent criminals from stealing your identity and opening new accounts in your name.
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