No matter how careful you are, thieves can steal personal information like your Social Security number, your date of birth and more. That information may fall into the wrong hands through data breaches that you have no control over and you risk becoming a victim of identity theft.
One of the most effective tools for preventing identity theft is a credit freeze, which can keep thieves from opening new accounts in your name. But a credit freeze has pros and cons, and it might fall short of your expectations. Before you go through the process of freezing your credit (and living with frozen credit), learn where credit freezes excel and where they fail.
How Does a Credit Freeze Work?
Locks down your credit: Freezing your credit prevents new creditors from accessing your credit reports. You freeze your credit with a particular credit bureau, meaning you’ll need to place a freeze with each bureau separately. (More on that in a minute.)
With your credit locked down, lenders (and others) are likely to reject new applications because they can’t review your credit history. This stops thieves from opening new accounts, but it also stops you.
Can be temporarily undone: When you need to use your credit — to apply for a new loan, for example — you can temporarily unfreeze your credit. That process allows for inquiries into your credit for a limited time, and the freeze resumes whenever you decide (usually when you no longer need to provide access to your credit reports).
Free and governed by federal law: As of September 2018, credit bureaus are required by law to provide credit freezes at no cost to consumers.
So, should you freeze your credit?
When Credit Freezes Work Best
It may make sense to freeze your credit when you want a high level of protection, you’re willing to live with the tradeoffs and you continue to monitor financial accounts for problems that credit freezes can’t prevent.
Freezing your credit is one of the most powerful ways to protect your credit. But a freeze makes it hard to use your credit and you might need your credit information available more often than you realize. As a result, it’s crucial to understand the conditions that work best with credit freezes.
No need for credit: When you don’t plan to use your credit for anything in the foreseeable future, freezing your credit may be an excellent idea. If you don’t need that information available, why leave it out there? For example, if you recently bought a car and you don’t plan to move or buy property any time soon, there aren’t many reasons for new inquiries into your credit.
For children and incapacitated consumers: You can also freeze credit for children under the age of 16 and incapacitated people under guardianship. In many cases, those individuals aren’t applying for loans or using their credit frequently, so there’s no need to make it available to the world.
Occasional unfreezing is easy enough: Even if you plan to use your credit soon, it’s relatively painless to freeze it and temporarily unfreeze whenever you need it. In many cases, you can temporarily remove the freeze online, by phone, or by mail, and you choose how long the lift should last.
- If you request online or by phone, the freeze should be removed within one hour.
- If you request by mail, the freeze should be removed within three business days after the credit reporting company receives your request
For example, if you want to apply for a loan, you can ask which credit bureau the lender uses and when they plan to pull your credit. Unfreeze your credit temporarily at that credit bureau and specify the time when you want the freeze to resume. If that sounds like something you’re willing and able to do, freezing your credit can help you protect yourself. Still, remember that things don’t always work perfectly, and the process can be stressful when working with multiple lenders and major events (like during a home purchase).
Shortcomings of Freezing Your Credit
So, why wouldn’t you freeze your credit? There are several limitations and drawbacks, and it’s crucial to understand those as you make your decision.
Limited protection: You can prevent identity thieves from accessing your credit reports — which goes a long way toward avoiding problems — but that’s it. A credit freeze does not prevent anybody from using your credit card number, hacking into your bank account, or doing anything else they can accomplish without a credit inquiry.
Even if you freeze your credit, some forms of theft are still possible, and you need to monitor your accounts for signs of fraud.
More PINs: When you freeze your credit, you receive a PIN that you must provide whenever you want to lift the freeze. That’s one more PIN that you need to remember or keep accessible in secure storage. You may need to dig up the PIN on short notice to apply for a loan, rent an apartment, buy insurance, or complete other tasks.
Numerous freezes required: Freezing your credit at the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, TransUnion and Experian) is a good start. But there are other reporting agencies, and businesses might use those data sources instead of the major credit bureaus. For example, identity thieves might be able to open mobile phone accounts in your name even after you freeze your credit at the major credit bureaus. To prevent problems, you would need to freeze your credit at those agencies, as well.
If identity thieves open accounts in your name and fail to pay bills, “your” account may go to a collection agency. As a result, your account could appear in your credit reports at the three major credit bureaus — bringing down your credit scores.
Alternatives to Freezing Your Credit
If a credit freeze sounds like too much trouble, you can try to prevent identity theft in other ways. However, alternative approaches are not as effective as credit freezes.
Fraud alerts: When you place a fraud alert on your credit reports, businesses must attempt to verify your identity before opening a new account. Those efforts might include calling you to confirm that you’re really trying to open an account.
Credit report fraud alerts are also free and governed by federal law. When you place an alert with one credit reporting agency, it must notify the other two. Fraud alerts normally last for only one year, requiring more maintenance than a credit freeze, which lasts indefinitely. Identity theft victims can qualify for seven-year fraud alerts.
Credit locks: A credit lock is a service that credit reporting agencies provide to consumers. One benefit of a lock over a freeze is that you don’t need a PIN to lock or unlock your credit — you do it using a secure phone or computer app.
But instead of being a right under federal law, a credit lock happens under a contractual agreement between you and the credit bureau. The level of protection depends on the contract and that can change over time.
Credit freezes are free, but you may have to pay for credit locks.
Credit monitoring: Whether or not you choose to freeze or lock your credit, it’s wise to monitor your credit so you learn about problems as soon as possible. Several companies, including credit bureaus, offer credit monitoring services. Some are free and others are available for a fee.
You can also monitor your credit on your own by ordering free credit reports (one per year from each of the three main credit bureaus) at AnnualCreditReport.com. Look for errors or activity you don’t recognize, and dispute them with the credit bureau.
While credit monitoring is helpful, it requires you to clean up any identity theft after the fact. Still, it may be a good alternative to a credit freeze if you frequently need to use your credit and don’t want to unfreeze your reports regularly.
Should You Freeze Your Credit?
A credit freeze is an effective tool to prevent identity theft. Cleaning up after identity theft can consume a lot of your time, and problems in your credit reports can lead to higher costs if they go unnoticed. If you’re willing and able to unfreeze your credit periodically, freezing your credit can prevent many (but not all) forms of identity theft.