What's a Credit Freeze and When Should I Use One?

A security freeze prevents potential creditors from accessing your credit history and stops criminals from opening getting credit in your name—even if they’ve stolen your personal information.

The Equifax data breach in 2017 affected 143 million people. If you're one of the people whose sensitive personal information—including your social security number, birth date, address, and driver's license number—was exposed in this data breach or someone has stolen your identity (or you have reason to believe that you are likely to become the victim of identity theft), you should think about initiating a credit freeze to prevent a thief from opening up accounts in your name and ruining your credit.

Read on to learn how a credit freeze works, when to use a credit freeze, and how to initiate a freeze.

Understanding Credit Freezes

A credit freeze—often called a security freeze—basically seals your credit history. This prevents a credit reporting company from releasing your credit information to a third party without your consent. So, if a thief tries to use your Social Security number and other personal information to apply for mortgage loan or other form of credit, the creditor would reject the application because it couldn’t check your credit score. (Learn the difference between a credit report and credit score.)

Exceptions to the Freeze

A credit freeze generally does not have an impact on your existing accounts.

Existing creditors can still access your credit history. Even under a credit freeze an existing creditor can have access to your credit report for certain types of account review, collection purposes, fraud control, or related activities. For example, the following entities may still access your credit report during a freeze:

  • a collection agency acting on behalf of an existing creditor, and
  • state or local agencies (such as law enforcement and child support agencies).

A credit freeze doesn't affect your current accounts, like credit card accounts.

A common misconception is that a credit freeze means you can’t use your current forms of credit, such as a credit card. But freezing your credit file does not affect your ability to use your existing accounts. (It also won't prevent misuse of your current accounts.) Your credit report is not accessed when you make a purchase with a credit card. A credit freeze only pertains to new credit applications. This means that you can still use your existing credit cards to make purchases during a credit freeze. Though, if the thief stole your credit card information, he or she can use your existing credit card during a credit freeze as well. Remember, scammers don’t need to access your credit report to charge purchases to an already existing account. So you do need to report the theft to your credit card issuer and get a new card in these circumstances. (Learn more about what to do if your identify is stolen.)

When to Use a Credit Freeze

It is generally advised that you request a credit freeze at the three national credit reporting agencies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—if:

  • you know someone has stolen your identity
  • you've been told that your personal identifying information has been compromised (again, as in the case of the Equifax breach), or
  • if you suspect someone has stolen your Social Security number and other information, such as your date of birth, that can be used to open credit in your name.

(To find out if your personal information was compromised as part of the 2017 Equifax breach, go to www.equifaxsecurity2017.com.)

How to Set Up a Credit Freeze

You may request a security freeze by contacting Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion individually. You can make your request:

  • online
  • by certified mail, or
  • by calling the credit bureau.

You must make separate freeze requests with each credit bureau.

How to Temporarily or Permanently Lift the Freeze

The freeze generally remains in place until you choose to lift or "thaw" it. Though, in a few states, the freeze will expire after a specific number of years. When you place a credit freeze on your file, you will receive a personal identification number (PIN) or password that you can use to:

  • permanently lift the freeze, or
  • temporarily lift the freeze for a specific party or period of time.

If you are actively seeking new credit, like a new loan or a new credit card, or applying for a certain job (some employers won’t hire you without a credit check), you’ll need to plan a few days ahead and remember to lift the freeze, either completely or for a specific person or business.

Cost to Set Up a Credit Freeze

The cost of imposing a credit freeze varies between states, though it typically ranges between $3 and $10 for each credit reporting company. There is also generally a small fee for lifting the freeze temporarily or removing the freeze altogether. Depending on your state’s law, if you are the victim of identity theft or over the age of 62 or 65, there is often no charge to add, temporarily lift, or remove the credit freeze.

You can find out the specific charges related to credit freezes in your state by going to the Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion websites.

More Information

To learn more about how to protect yourself if someone steals your identity or what to do after your personal information is compromised in a data breach, go to Identitytheft.gov and Identitytheft.gov/databreach.

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