With data breaches, ransomware, and identity theft on the rise, consumers must put in an extra effort to keep their credit safe these days. One of the ways some people lock down their information is through a credit freeze. It can be a good thing in some cases but not necessarily in all.
What is a Credit Freeze?
A credit freeze is a tool that allows you to "lock" your credit report so that no one can open up new lines of credit, get a loan or sign up for services using your identity. When you put a credit freeze on your account, new creditors cannot view or access your credit report from the three big credit agencies (Experian, TransUnion, Equifax). Existing creditors can still see your credit report, however.
Typically, when you apply for a credit card, mortgage, or loan, the banks contact one of these agencies to view your credit report to gauge your creditworthiness. When you apply a credit freeze, they cannot do this. So, you can’t get new lines of credit either unless you remove the credit freeze. You can do so at any time.
How to Do a Credit Freeze
Doing a credit freeze is pretty straightforward. However, you need to contact each credit bureau separately and inform them. They used to charge a fee, but now the law requires that they provide this service to you for free.
You can contact the credit reporting agencies below:
- Equifax: 1-800-349-9660 or equifax.com
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742 or experian.com
- TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289 or transunion.com
When you call, be sure you have the following information readily available as they will need it.
- Full legal name.
- Date of birth.
- Full address.
- Social security number.
- Other personally identifiable information.
The credit freeze will stay on your account until you remove it. Each credit bureau will provide you with a PIN that you can provide to potential new lenders so they can access your credit without you having to remove the freeze.
If you will be renting an apartment, buying a home, or requiring a few people to review your credit, you can “lift” the credit freeze which temporarily suspends it. Then you can put it back after. If you choose to “remove” it, it will be gone entirely from your account.
When it’s a Good Idea to Invoke a Credit Freeze
If you are the victim of a data breach and identity theft, then a credit freeze makes sense. For some people, however, it is overkill.
If you are worried about thieves opening new credit accounts in your name, then you should consider a credit freeze.
A credit freeze is free and doesn’t negatively affect your credit score. Therefore, there is no adverse effect from putting a credit freeze on your account except that it may force you to fill out paperwork a few times and may slow things down when you need to use your credit. It may also be a pain to keep track of PINs and lift and restore your credit freeze if you need it.
Remember, though, a credit freeze does not prevent hackers from accessing your existing accounts, and if your information was stolen in a data breach, that is a real possibility.
Credit Fraud Alert: How to Put It
A gentler, less intrusive option is to contact one of the major credit bureaus and ask to add a fraud alert to your account. A fraud alert indicates that you have been a victim of fraud or identity theft, and therefore anyone who considers lending you money (or someone pretending to be you), has to take extra steps to verify that it’s really you before providing the credit. It’s easier to add a fraud alert (you only have to tell one agency, and they have to tell the other two). You can do it by phone or mail easily, and it lasts for a year. In special circumstances, you can add a seven-year fraud alert if you have filed a complaint with the FTC and the police due to identity theft. Neither a credit freeze or fraud alert negatively affects your credit, and both can give you peace of mind.
In the end, it is up to you. A fraud alert provides an extra layer of security and ensures that no one opens up new credit without proper identity verification. A credit freeze is a more severe step and may cause you more work and hassle in the long run.