Free Credit Freezes: How to Use Them to Protect Your Identity
Credit bureaus used to charge consumers for the privilege of freezing and unfreezing their credit reports.
However, the federal government ruled that credit freezes should be free to all Americans.
What does that mean for you? Should you freeze your credit? Should you freeze your children’s credit? How difficult is it to freeze and unfreeze your credit reports?
In 2018, Congress passed legislation that prevented credit bureaus from charging consumers to freeze or unfreeze their credit.
As of September 21, 2018, credit bureaus must provide free access to credit freezes.
Prior to this legislation, people paid up to $10 every time they froze or unfroze their credit reports. This law is likely to encourage more Americans to freeze their credit.
They no longer have to worry about the cost of freezing and unfreezing their credit reports.
Effect on Consumers
Now that consumers can freeze their credit for free, they’ll be able to take advantage of a very powerful first-line defense against identity theft.
How does freezing your credit help prevent identity theft? Here’s an example.
If an identity thief wanted to open a credit card in your name, they would use your personal information to fill out a credit card application.
Then, the credit card company would check your credit reports to determine how much credit to give you and how much interest to charge.
If you freeze your credit reports, the credit card company will not be able to access them. That means the credit card company will not issue a new credit account in your name. The identity thief will not get access to a line of credit under your identity.
When you freeze your credit, you prevent people from using your credit reports to apply for credit cards and bank accounts.
You also prevent people from opening other types of accounts, such as utility accounts, under your name. This is an important step to take if you want to protect yourself against identity theft.
But freezing your credit also means that you are unable to apply for credit cards, bank accounts, or utility accounts.
You have to unfreeze your credit before you apply for anything that involves your finances, including mortgages and car loans. Even apartment landlords run credit checks before deciding whether to offer you a lease.
This is why free credit freezes are so important to consumers. When you can freeze and unfreeze your credit without paying a fee, you are more likely to keep your credit reports frozen. This keeps your credit reports safe.
Freezing your credit reports has both advantages and disadvantages. Here are some of the most common pros and cons:
- You control who has access to your credit reports.
- You can protect yourself from identity theft.
- You can protect your children from identity theft.
- If you want to apply for more credit, you have to unfreeze your credit
- reports first. This extra step could prevent you from applying for
- credit you don’t need, such as a store credit card.
- You have to unfreeze your credit reports before applying for credit.
- Want to open a bank account, investment account or other financial accounts? You may also have to unfreeze your credit reports.
- Moving to a new apartment? You’ll need to unfreeze your credit before you can get your electricity, water, and internet set up.
- If you have to unfreeze your credit often enough, you may not want to freeze it again. This means you lose access to those important identity theft protections.
As you can see, taking advantage of the benefits of freezing your credit reports means doing a little extra work.
You have to unfreeze your credit reports every time you apply for a financial account. You also have to remember to re-freeze your credit reports after the application is completed.
Don’t let this discourage you from taking this important step. Freezing and unfreezing your credit reports is easy and only takes a few minutes of your time.
How to Request a Credit Freeze
You will need to request a credit freeze from each of the Big Three credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Each bureau has three different methods of requesting a credit freeze: online, by phone, or by mail.
Here’s how to request a credit freeze from each of the Big Three bureaus:
- Online: www.experian.com/freeze
- Phone: 1-888-397-3742
- Mail: Experian Security Freeze, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
- Online: http://freeze.transunion.com
- Phone: 1-888-909-8872
- Mail: TransUnion LLC, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016
- Online: www.freeze.equifax.com
- Phone: 1-800-685-1111
- Mail: Equifax Security Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, Georgia 30348
When you request your credit freeze, be prepared to provide the following information:
- Date of Birth
- Social Security Number
- Current and previous addresses
You may be required to provide extra information, such as a photo ID or a copy of a utility bill. These documents help confirm your identity.
If you request your credit freeze online, the process takes a few moments to complete. Requesting a credit freeze via mail takes much longer. We recommend freezing and unfreezing your credit online, especially if you plan to do it frequently.
Once your credit report is frozen, the credit bureau will give you a unique PIN. Keep this number safe, because you will need it to unfreeze and refreeze your credit report in the future.
How to Request a Credit Freeze for a Child
Children don’t get special protection from identity thieves. If someone gets access to your child’s personal information, they can use that information to apply for credit under your child’s name.
Requesting a credit freeze for a child is more complicated than requesting a credit freeze for yourself. Each of the Big Three bureaus has a specific process for completing the request:
You will need to provide a lot of documentation to freeze your child’s credit report. You also need proof that you are the child’s legal parent or guardian.
This process takes time, but some parents view it as an important step to protect their children from identity theft.
How to Unfreeze Your Credit
When you want to unfreeze your credit, contact the three bureaus using the contact information listed above.
As before, you can go online, make a call, or send a letter. You will need to provide the same information you provided when you froze your credit, as well as your unique PIN.
If you unfreeze your credit online, the process should only take a few minutes. This is useful if you started an application for a financial product and realized you forgot to unfreeze your credit.
If you lose your unique PIN, it is still possible to unfreeze and refreeze your credit report. Call the credit bureau and let them know you lost your PIN.
They will ask you a series of questions to confirm your identity. They may also request that you mail or fax copies of documents such as your Social Security card.
Once they have confirmed your identity, they will issue you a new PIN and you can continue freezing and unfreezing your credit reports.
Can You Check Your Credit Reports While They Are Frozen?
It’s important to check your credit reports, even if they are frozen. Freezing your credit reports helps prevent identity thieves from opening new accounts in your name. It doesn’t help prevent credit report errors.
By checking your credit reports, you can confirm that the information on those reports is accurate. Your credit report could still contain an outdated address, for example.
Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax each let you check you credit report for free once a year.
Many people choose to check one of their three credit reports every four months.
They might check Experian in January, TransUnion in May, and Equifax in September.
This strategy helps you catch mistakes before too much time has gone by.
If you want to check your credit reports, visit AnnualCreditReport.com.
That is the only website authorized to provide free credit reports to consumers. You can also call 1-877-322-8228.
If you prefer mail, send an Annual Credit Report request form to:
- Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281,
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281
If you froze your credit, you should still be able to access your free credit reports through AnnualCreditReport.com. The FTC requires free credit reports to remain accessible to consumers even if their credit is frozen.
If you cannot access your credit report, contact AnnualCreditReport.com at 1-877-322-8228.
Now that credit freezes are free to consumers, it’s a good idea to freeze your credit reports with each of the Big Three bureaus.
Yes, you will have to unfreeze them when you apply for a new credit card or open a new financial account. But it’s still worth taking the time to protect yourself — and your credit — from identity theft.