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Worried about data breaches? Wondering who has your personal information?
If you have serious concerns about identity theft or fraudulent activity, you can place credit freezes on your credit reports as an extra level of protection.
A credit freeze, also known as a security freeze, prevents the credit bureau from sharing your credit report with any person or entity without your permission (it prevents hard credit inquiries). Without a credit report pull, no one can obtain credit and open a new account in your name — in most cases (there are some “guaranteed approval” credit cards that don’t require a credit check).
This helps prevent identity theft because if someone steals your information and goes to apply for a credit card, for example, the card issuer won’t be able to check your credit file. That means they won’t be able to issue a new account in your name, even if your Social Security number was stolen and used. When you freeze your credit, only your existing creditors and debt collectors can access your credit reports and credit scores (government agencies can access them too, in response to a court order).
Credit freezes do not affect your credit scores in any way, positive or negative. Credit freezes do not prevent you from receiving pre-qualified credit offers, either (because these come from soft inquiries).
Freezing credit reports can be a good strategy for identity theft victims, or anyone who was affected by the massive Equifax data breach. The Equifax breach affected over 145 million Americans, and in some cases credit card numbers were exposed.
After requesting a credit freeze you’ll be given a personal identification number (PIN), which is used to unfreeze your report. Be sure to record this in a safe place.
If you don’t want to go all out with a credit freeze, you should consider fraud alerts as part of your credit monitoring strategy instead. Fraud alerts require lenders to verify your identity by calling your phone number before issuing new credit accounts in your name, adding an extra layer of security.
Credit freezes will last until you request an unfreeze, which is appropriately known as “thawing.” This is in contrast to fraud alerts, which will last for 12 months after you set them.
If you want to apply for new credit you’ll need to thaw your reports. If you don’t want to fully thaw your report, you can temporarily unfreeze it for a specified time period, giving you a few days to apply for credit cards or loans. Or, if you know you’ll be applying with a specific lender, you may be able to request a single-use PIN to give to that lender, which will allow one-time access to your credit report.
Freezes and thaws will typically take place instantly when requested online or by phone. If you mail a request it will take longer.
You’ll need to request a credit freeze with each of the major credit reporting agencies separately: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. We’ve provided instructions below.
If you’ve made the decision to freeze your credit reports, then it’s essential to do so with all three of the major credit bureaus. There is no single, centralized source where you can freeze all three of your credit reports at once.
Think of a credit freeze like a lock on a door. If you have three doors to your home but you only lock one, a burglar can still enter. You have to lock all three doors individually if you want to be secure.
Thankfully, credit freeze requests are fairly easy, and the process can be completed online by creating an account with each credit reporting company. If you can’t use the online method for some reason, you can also call or mail in your request.
|Equifax||Equifax Security Freeze Page||
1-800-349-9960 (for NY residents)
|Equifax Security Freeze,
P.O. Box 105788,
Atlanta, Georgia 30348
|Experian||Experian Security Freeze Page||1-888-397-3742||Experian Security Freeze,
P.O. Box 9554,
Allen, TX 75013
|TransUnion||TransUnion Credit Freeze Page||1-888-909-8872||TransUnion LLC,
P.O. Box 2000,
Chester, PA 19016
Each credit bureau also offers a service, called a credit lock, which lets you quickly lock and unlock your reports. This is basically like a security freeze but instead it’s a product that each credit bureau offers, rather than being a federally mandated service.
Credit locks are easier to apply and remove, they don’t require a PIN, and they supposedly take effect more quickly, although freezes and thaws are often instant anyway. We recommend credit freezes over credit locks because locks cost money in some cases, they can unnecessarily bind you into non-advantageous contracts with the credit bureaus, and the bureaus may use your information to advertise more products to you.
It’s important to remember that after freezing your reports you’ll need to thaw them before you can apply for new credit.
Credit reports should thaw within minutes when you make the request online or by phone, but requests by mail will take much longer. Even though thaws are usually nearly instant, Experian recommends allowing three days for your credit reports to thaw before applying for new credit, as some states may have laws that affect this.
Each credit bureau allows you to unfreeze your report permanently or temporarily. You may want to just thaw it for a day, so you can apply for a particular credit card. Or perhaps you want to thaw it for a month, so you can rate-shop for an auto loan or mortgage. Depending on the bureau, you may be able to schedule the thaw in advance.
If you apply for a loan or credit card while your credit reports are still frozen, the lender will not be able to access your reports or scores and you’ll be denied. The lender won’t be able to run hard inquiries to view the information in your credit files. So you’ll have to re-apply again and time the thaw a little better.
Credit freezes and locks, along with fraud alerts, are the only truly proactive ways to protect your credit reports from fraud and identity thieves. However, due to the cumbersome and potentially inconvenient situation a credit freeze might land you in, it’s an option that not many consumers choose. If a credit freeze is not right for you consider the other options, and be sure to monitor your credit reports regularly for suspicious activity to guard against identity theft.
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