What Is a Credit Freeze?
On its website, the Federal Trade Commission defines a credit freeze as a tool that “lets you restrict access to your credit report,” making it more difficult for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. As anyone who’s applied for credit will tell you, lenders need credit reports in order to determine whether you’re eligible for a new line of credit. When you initiate a credit freeze, or credit lock, as it’s sometimes called, no one can pull your credit reports, so they can’t OK a loan in your name. Credit freezes will not affect your credit score in any way. But it is important to note these aspects, outlined by the FTC:
- A credit freeze will not permanently prevent you from opening a new account or doing other things like applying for a job or renting a home. However, if you decide to take out a new line of credit or do anything else that requires a credit check, you will need to lift the freeze temporarily, either for a specific time or a specific party.
- A credit freeze will not prevent you from accessing your free annual credit report.
- A credit freeze will not prevent a thief from using your existing financial accounts, so you’ll still need to monitor them.
A Brief History of Credit Freezes
In many cases of identity theft, a scam artist determines an unsuspecting victim’s name and Social Security number. If that victim has a satisfactory credit score, his or her information is then used to open a new line of credit, usually a credit card shipped to an address known only to the perpetrator.
Identity thieves then make quick, high-volume hits — often charging, in a short space of time, thousands or tens of thousands of dollars worth of clothes, computers, digital television sets or other merchandise. Responsibility for the price tab on a fraudulent spending spree often falls on either the bank that issued the card, or the merchant who sold the goods to a thief. However, the victims shoulder other ongoing costs: legal fees, denied mortgages, threatening phone calls from debt collectors, and tedious hours spent trying to vindicate damaged financial reputations.
More than ten years ago, representatives from several leading consumer advocacy groups including members of PIRG (Public Interest Research Groups) and the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, came up with a solution to new account fraud, known as the “security freeze” or alternately as a “credit freeze.” The credit freeze offers consumers the opportunity to deny potential creditors access to their credit reports. With access to a consumer’s credit report cut off, creditors will generally deny an application for a new account.
Though credit bureaus offer fraud alert services for known victims and monitoring services that can help spot fraudulent spending on existing accounts, security freezes are the only tool available to consumers to stop identity theft before it occurs, says Scott Mitic, CEO of the California-based identity theft prevention company Trusted ID. He adds, “Every American should have the right to protect their data should they choose to do so.”
At the time, granting consumers the right to allow and deny access to their credit reports at will was new to the credit reporting system in this country. The credit histories of millions of Americans are shepherded exclusively by three private companies — TransUnion, Equifax and Experian — which began allowing individuals free access to their credit reports when Congress mandated they do so at least once a year. Before then, consumers wielded very little oversight of their personal credit histories. A credit freeze was unprecedented in the amount of control it turned over to private citizens.
To the chagrin of the credit bureaus, the consumer advocates began their push to enact state-level legislation that would make “security freezes” open to all consumers. The activists met early success in California, which approved the country’s first security freeze statute in January 2003. Since then, 49 other states and the District of Columbia have followed suit. Most, like California, extend security freeze privileges to all consumers.
How A Credit Freeze Works
In order to “freeze” their credit file, consumers contact the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) individually. These agencies, in turn, will require consumers to provide certain information, such as identification information, before they will place a freeze on their credit report. Laws vary by state, but you’ll often pay a fee for initiating a credit freeze.This fee is usually around $5 to $10, but many states let victims of identity theft freeze their credit for free.
To undo a freeze (a “thaw” according to industry jargon), consumers typically incur a separate fee of $5 to $10. Most states ask for “thaw” requests to be sent to credit bureaus in writing, and they grant the bureaus three to five business days to honor them, though there are exceptions.
How Do I Freeze My Credit?
In order to “freeze” their credit file, consumers must contact each of the three major credit reporting companies separately. Here’s a closer look at what they require.
Equifax Credit Freeze
You can place a freeze on your Equifax credit file by visiting https://www.freeze.equifax.com, calling 1-800-685-1111 (1-800-349-9960 for NY residents) or submitting a written request to:
- Equifax Security Freeze
- P.O. Box 10578
- Atlanta, Georgia 30348
Be sure to include your full name, Social Security number, date of birth, payment and address. To temporarily lift a freeze, you can visit the same website, call the same toll-free numbers or submit a request in writing.
Experian Credit Freeze
To request a security freeze on your Experian credit file, you’ll need to visit www.experian.com/freeze, call 1-888-397-3742, or send certified or overnight mail to:
- P.O. Box 9554
- Allen, TX 75013
Do note that instructions may vary by state, and you’ll need to include your full name, Social Security number, date of birth, complete addresses for the past two years, and copies of government-issued identification and utility, bank or insurance statements.
Overnight delivery may also be made to:
- 711 Experian Parkway
- Allen, TX 75013
To lift your freeze, you can visit Experian’s Freeze Center using your PIN or submit a request in writing.
TransUnion Credit Freeze
You can place a TransUnion security freeze by visiting https://freeze.transunion.com. Be sure to prepare by having your full name, Social Security number, date of birth, current and previous addresses, email address, and a copy of a government-issued ID, as well as utility, bank or insurance statements on hand.
To lift a freeze on your TransUnion account, you can likewise visit https://freeze.transunion.com. (You’ll be prompted to create an account if you don’t have one.) You can also call 888-909-8872 or mail in the Lift section of the Security Freeze Form that was enclosed with your Security Freeze information letter.
Should You Freeze Your Credit?
When consumers have been victims of identity theft, it usually makes sense for them to freeze their credit to prevent the crook from opening additional accounts. For consumers who are just worried about the possibility of fraud — those who have been victim of a data breach at a retailer, for example, or who have had a single credit card compromised or a wallet lost or stolen — it may be overkill. Instead they may want to place a “fraud alert” on their credit file, which instructs creditors to verify the applicant’s identity before opening a new account. While a fraud alert does not lock down the file in the way a freeze does, it can still be useful and it won’t require them to unfreeze their reports if they apply for credit, try to get a cell phone, and so on.
It’s a good idea for all consumers, fraud victims or not, to monitor their credit. At a minimum, it’s wise to take advantage of the opportunity to get your credit reports once a year for free from each of the major credit reporting agencies, which you can do on AnnualCreditReport.com. (You can also view two of your free credit scores on Credit.com.) If you do suspect fraud, subscribing to a credit monitoring service with alerts can be useful.