Identity theft can be financially and emotionally draining for its victims. For some, it can take months or even years to fully recover.
According to Javelin Strategy & Research, 2016 was a record year for fraud, hitting roughly one out of 20 Americans.
That’s why it’s essential for you to understand how to protect yourself. One way is learning how to freeze your credit report to prevent some fraudulent activities.
Here’s what you need to know about freezing credit reports and what you should keep in mind before doing so.
What is a credit report freeze?
A credit freeze gives you control over who sees and uses your credit report.
When you freeze your credit report, lenders and others aren’t allowed to access it for any reason. When you apply for credit, you’ll need to take steps to lift the freeze.
4 reasons you should freeze your credit report
Requesting a credit report freeze can help protect you from identity theft, especially in the following situations.
1. Your information is susceptible to a data breach
In the digital age, it’s almost impossible to avoid having your sensitive information stored on a web server. And as hackers become more sophisticated, data breaches become more common.
As of July 2017, the Identity Theft Resource Center has logged 791 data breaches for the year, with more than 12 million people affected.
In some cases, you might not find out immediately that your information has been compromised. So, freezing credit reports can prevent anything from happening in the meantime.
2. You want more control over who sees your reports
Unless you’ve opted out, you likely receive prescreened or preapproved offers from lenders. Many of these offers include a promotion for a credit card or the promise of a low interest rate on a personal loan.
In any case, the financial institution checked your credit with a soft inquiry before sending that offer. Although the inquiry itself doesn’t hurt your credit score, you might feel like your privacy has been violated.
If you do a credit report freeze, lenders won’t have access to your report.
3. You’re heading overseas
If you’re planning to take a long trip abroad, the last thing you want to do is deal with fraud back home. And since you’re not going to be in the U.S. for a while, you likely won’t be applying for credit while you’re away.
Freezing your credit report over the phone or online is usually instantaneous, so you can make the request anytime.
4. You’ve been robbed
With data breaches and other types of fraud, it can be hard to say what the thieves have access to. But if you know for sure what a fraudster has stolen, freezing your credit reports can give you peace of mind.
For example, if your mail was stolen, it’s possible your Social Security number was listed on a document that had been mailed to you.
How to freeze your credit report
There are four ways to request a credit report freeze from a credit bureau. To complete the request, you’ll need to provide the following information:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Social Security number
- Other personal information
After the freeze has been placed, you’ll receive a letter in the mail with a PIN or password you can use later to lift the freeze.
This is the most convenient option. You can make online requests through the three national credit bureaus’ websites:
2. By phone
You can call the bureaus and make requests through their customer service teams:
- TransUnion: 888-909-8872
- Equifax: 800-685-1111 (800-349-9960 for New York residents)
- Experian: 888‑397‑3742
3. By mail
Although it’s a significantly slower option, two of the three credit bureaus allow you to make requests via snail mail:
Equifax Security Freeze
P.O. Box 105788
Atlanta, GA 30348
Experian Security Freeze
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
4. Through Multi-Bureau Lock
In June 2017, TransUnion and Equifax launched a tool that allows you to freeze and unfreeze your credit reports with a click of your mouse.
“Multi-Bureau Lock allows customers to lock both their TransUnion and Equifax credit reports simultaneously,” said Heather Battison, vice president of consumer communications at TransUnion.
The caveat is that you need to be a paying customer for either TransUnion’s Credit Lock or Equifax’s Lock & Alert. The former costs $19.95 per month, and the latter costs $4.95 per month. Both services also offer unlimited access to your credit reports and credit scores as well as credit monitoring.
4 things to consider before you freeze your credit report
Freezing credit reports sounds like a great way to avoid identity theft altogether, but there are a few things you should note before doing it.
1. You might be charged a fee
Even if you’re not using the Multi-Bureau Lock feature, you might be charged a fee by a credit bureau to add or lift a freeze. Generally, these fees don’t apply if you’re a victim of identity theft.
Check to see the fees for your state before requesting a freeze.
2. It won’t protect you from all fraud
“Freezing your credit prevents fraudsters from opening unauthorized lines of credit under your name, protecting your overall credit health,” said Battison.
But it doesn’t prevent identity theft on your active accounts. If you choose to freeze your credit report, make sure you still keep an eye on your current accounts.
3. You might not be able to monitor your credit
Most credit monitoring services provide you with a credit report and score by making a soft inquiry on your credit report.
If your report is frozen, though, they might not be able to access it. That will make it hard to know if there’s any fraud happening on accounts you already have open.
4. You might need to lift the freeze multiple times
Every time you apply for credit, an apartment lease, or a utility contract, the other party runs a credit check. If you freeze your credit report, though, the other party can’t do that. So, you’ll need to request temporary lifts.
Depending on where you live and your circumstances, each temporary lift might cost you between $2 and $12 — though some states don’t allow a fee. Credit bureaus also have up to three days to lift the freeze, so make sure to do it well in advance.
Consider all options before freezing credit reports
If you’re concerned about identity theft, freezing credit reports isn’t the only precaution you can take. You also can add an initial fraud alert to your credit reports, which is free and lasts for 90 days.
“In the event of a suspected breach, place a fraud alert on your credit report to alert potential creditors or lenders you may have been a victim of fraud,” said Battison.
That way, if someone applies for credit in your name, the creditor must reach out to the phone number you listed in the alert to verify your identity.
What’s more, you have to create a fraud alert with only one of the three credit bureaus. It will then contact the others on your behalf.
If a fraud alert sounds more appropriate for your situation, choose it over a credit freeze. If, however, you feel like things are bad enough, freezing your credit reports might give you more peace of mind.
According to Battison, other ways to prevent fraud include monitoring your credit report regularly, using secure websites, and using mobile payments instead of plastic at cash registers.
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