Worried that your online activity is putting you at risk for identity theft? You aren’t alone. Nearly three in four U.S. consumers say they are at least somewhat concerned that their email, financial, or social media accounts could be hacked, a survey by the credit-reporting agency Experian shows. Consumers filed more than 444,000 complaints about identity theft with the Federal Trade Commission’s Sentinel database in 2018, making it the third most common type of complaint received. Credit card fraud topped the list of identity theft reports, and new credit card account fraud was up 24 percent from the previous year. Yet, despite being aware of the risks, most people aren’t taking basic steps to protect themselves.
The good news: It’s easy—and free—to safeguard yourself. One of the most effective ways to prevent identity theft and financial fraud is to freeze your credit. Here’s what that means and how to make it happen.
What is a credit freeze?
A credit freeze, also called a security freeze, is a request to restrict access to your credit report.
When you freeze your report with each of the three credit bureaus—Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion—potential new lenders can’t check your credit. Credit cards and loans can’t be issued in your name (until you lift the freeze), which thwarts identity thieves who try to open an account in your name.
“The practical impact is that a new creditor will not issue new credit to you,” says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy at the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “That protects you from new account fraud, which is one of the most difficult types of identity theft to resolve because you frequently don’t find out about it until long after it has occurred.”
It’s now free to freeze, and unfreeze, credit reports in all 50 states, thanks to the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act of 2018.
How does a credit freeze work?
To freeze your reports, you must contact each of the three credit bureaus individually. You can do so by creating an online account, by calling a toll-free number, or by mailing your request. (Note that each credit bureau has a slightly different procedure.)
- Equifax: Equifax.com/personal/credit-report-services or 800-685-1111
- Experian: Experian.com/freeze/center.html or 888-397-3742
- Transunion: Transunion.com/credit-help or 888-909-8872
Going through an online portal is perhaps the quickest way to freeze a credit report. When you place a freeze, you’ll receive a personal identification number. You will need this PIN to lift the freeze by phone.
“If you forget your PIN, it’s arduous to reset,” says Charity Lacey, vice president of communications for the Identity Theft Resource Center. “It’s a rare case where we suggest you write the PIN down.” Lock it in a safe or locking filing cabinet for further protection.
In addition to abolishing credit freeze fees, the 2018 law set other new rules and timelines that apply nationwide. If you place a freeze online or by phone, the bureau must enact it within one business day. And if you request a thaw, the bureau must unfreeze it within one hour. If you send in your request by mail, the bureau must place or lift the freeze within three business days after it receives your request, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s website. Parents can also freeze credit for their minor children younger than 16, which experts strongly recommend to protect the child’s financial future. “Child identity theft is the most lucrative because most children are not checking their credit until maybe they are filing for financial aid or getting a car,” Lacey says.
How do you unfreeze your credit?
You can lift your freeze temporarily (for a set period of time) or permanently (until you decide otherwise). To do either you will need to contact each credit bureau individually and provide them the pin you received when freezing your credit. You can unfreeze your credit online, over the phone, or by mail (see above contact information).
You can also unfreeze your credit for just one specific lender, in which case you will be given a single-use PIN to give that lender. Make sure in advance that the lender can enter a single-use PIN when accessing your credit file, and ask which credit bureau they use, so you only have to generate one pin.
Should you freeze your credit?
Everyone should freeze their credit reports, according to Stephens and Lacey. “In this current climate of daily data breaches, it’s becoming more and more important to take preventive steps when you can,” Lacey says.
A credit freeze won’t prevent your existing creditors, or debt collectors on their behalf, from accessing your report. Nor will it prevent government agencies in some cases, insurance companies, landlords, and employers from getting your report if they have a permissible reason.
The only downside to freezing your credit is that when you apply for a car loan, credit card, mortgage, or other loan you will need to unfreeze your credit, “thaw” or lift your freeze for a specific period of time, or generate a single-use PIN through the credit bureau(s) at one or more of the bureaus to allow new access to your credit report.
What can and can’t a freeze do?
Placing a freeze won’t affect your credit score according to the FTC, and it won’t prevent you from getting a free copy of your credit report from each of the three credit bureaus once a year at annualcreditreport.com.
It also won’t stop those “prescreened” or “preapproved” credit card offers. “Consumers believe when they get that offer that the [card company] has looked at your credit report and approved you,” Stephens says. They haven’t. You can, however, stop prescreened offers by calling 888-567-8688 or going to optoutprescreen.com.
Your frozen report can also be used to verify your identity. “Say you are applying online for a bank account. The bank may want to verify your ID. They ask you a series of questions derived from your credit report,” such as past addresses or the name of your mortgage lender, Stephens says. “That is allowed.”
A security freeze won’t prevent certain entities from accessing your credit. In the past these rules varied by state, but under the new federal law, these entities include:
- your current creditors,
- government agencies or private collection agencies with a court order, subpoena, or search warrant,
- credit monitoring services to which you’ve subscribed,
- companies you’ve authorized to provide you with your report,
- any person using the information in connection with insurance underwriting, employment, tenant, or background screening.
Under federal law, employers are required to get the consumer’s permission to access a credit record whether or not it’s frozen. Companies with a “permissible purpose” can pull your report without your permission. They include landlords if you have applied for housing, and insurance companies if you have applied for insurance, says Lisa Schifferle, an attorney with the Federal Trade Commission. This means you won’t need to unfreeze your credit when you’re looking for a job, insurance, or a place to rent.
A credit freeze won’t protect you from other types of identity theft, such as thieves filing a tax return with your name and Social Security number and their address to collect a refund before you even file. The Internal Revenue Service offers an “IP PIN,” a six-digit number, that eligible taxpayers can use when they file their return to help prevent this type of fraud. However, not everyone can get it. The IRS invites some people to “opt in.” Residents of certain states including California can request an IP PIN. If someone has used your Social Security number to file a tax return, file an IRS Form 14039 and contact the IRS at 1-800-829-1040.
A freeze also won’t prevent medical identity theft, where criminals use your insurance or health records to get free health care or better impersonate you.
How do you recover from identity theft?
How you recover from identity theft depends on what personal information was stolen and how it was used. New-account theft is very difficult to recover from, “especially if a long time has gone by,” says Stephens. That’s why it’s so important to freeze a child’s report. If the child doesn’t have one already, the credit bureau will create a file and freeze it.
Many people don’t know they’ve been victimized until they see an appalling credit score or accounts they didn’t open on their credit report. If you have been a victim of new-account identity theft, immediately freeze your credit report if you haven’t already.
Next, file a report with your local police if they accept them. Some jurisdictions will instead require you to file an FTC affidavit of ID theft, which is a “federal version of a police report,” says Lacey. It helps consumers prove to businesses that they’ve been a victim of ID theft. It’s one of the documents you will receive when you report your identity theft at the FTC’s IdentityTheft.gov website. This site will help you report and recover from identity theft.
Smart Tip: Some states, including Nevada and Montana, run special identity theft programs to help victims in those states recover.
You also need to contact the credit bureaus. They will direct you to the creditors you’ll need to contact. “Each creditor will ask for different information,” Lacey says. Her nonprofit, Identity Theft Resource Center, also helps people recover from identity theft.
The FTC advises calling your creditors and asking them to close compromised or fake accounts and to stop reporting the details to credit bureaus. AAA Members who sign up for AAA Identity Champion's Protect or Complete plans can get assistance with this and filing a police report.
A credit freeze is a simple way to better protect your credit score and finances from fraud and theft. While a freeze can’t prevent all kinds of identity theft, it can give you peace of mind to know that new credit cannot be opened in your name without your knowledge.