When your personal information is compromised, you’re at risk of having your identity stolen, which can lead to surprising tax bills, denial of credit, and even arrest if a crime was committed in your name. Considering the increased frequency and severity of data breaches in recent history, many Americans have had some personal information stolen, including passport numbers and Social Security numbers. If you’re concerned that your identity may be at risk, a credit freeze may help protect you from identity theft.
What Is a Credit Freeze?
A credit freeze, also called a security freeze, blocks companies from making new inquiries to your consumer credit report. Since creditors can’t check your credit report to determine your creditworthiness, potential thieves would have a much harder time opening fraudulent accounts.
You can still check your own credit report when you have a credit freeze in place.
How to Freeze Your Credit Report
It’s free to freeze and unfreeze your credit reports with the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Once you make an online or phone request to freeze your credit report, the change must take effect within one business day. A freeze request made by mail must be effective within three business days of its receipt.
A credit bureau must send you a written confirmation the freeze has gone into effect within five business days.
To initiate the freeze, you must give the credit bureau the following things:
- Your Social Security number
- A photocopy or digital file of a photo ID
- Proof of your address, such as an image of a recent bill
You can freeze your credit reports with smaller credit reporting companies too. These companies include ChexSystems, which deals with the use of checking accounts, and CoreLogic Teletrack, which specializes in subprime lending products.
Like the big three credit bureaus, these companies must provide you with a free credit report when you request one. You are entitled to one free credit report from each company every year, and you must also be given a free report by a company if you have been denied credit because of a negative item in that company's report on you.
In 2020, the most you can be charged for a credit report if you're not entitled to a free one is $12.50.
How to Unfreeze Your Credit Report
You have the flexibility to lift the freeze when you’re ready to apply for credit. You can temporarily lift the freeze, specifying how long the lift should be in effect. Requesting a temporary lift online or over the phone gives you faster results—the bureaus must lift the freeze within one hour. Otherwise, if you make the request by mail, the bureau must lift the freeze within three business days.
Exceptions to the Credit Freeze
Some companies and government agencies can still access your credit report when you have a freeze in place. They include:
- Lenders with whom you have an existing relationship
- Debt collectors hired by an existing lender
- Some government agencies, including those that oversee child support payments
- A company you previously hired to monitor your credit
Credit card companies can also still pull your credit report to decide whether to give you pre-approved card offers. If you want to stop receiving those pre-screened offers—as well as offers for other types of credit or insurance—you have to specifically opt out of them at OptOutPrescreen.com.
In addition, a credit freeze does not prevent credit checks by potential employers or landlords or insurance companies you've requested coverage from.
Credit bureaus will still be updating your reports while your credit freeze is in effect.
Credit Freeze Alternatives
A fraud alert is another security measure that can help you prevent identity theft, but it’s not as strong as a credit freeze. With a fraud alert, companies must take additional steps to verify your identity before accessing your credit report. If you request a fraud alert from one of the three major credit reporting companies, it must notify the other two companies about the fraud alert.
A fraud alert remains in effect for one year and may be renewed for another year.
All three major credit bureaus offer a subscription-based credit lock service that operates similarly to a credit freeze but enables you to lock and unlock your credit report online or via mobile app. The monthly fee varies by company and individual offer. For example, in June 2020, TransUnion was marketing a credit lock for both TransUnion and Equifax reports for $24.95.
Because this is an optional, paid service offered by the credit bureaus, a credit lock is not governed by federal law and so the companies may change the terms of the service when they want to.
Credit Freeze Considerations
If you suspect your personal information has been compromised—perhaps because you’ve received a data breach notification—freezing your credit can protect you against potential identity theft. A credit freeze can also help protect you from further damage if you know someone has stolen your identity.
A credit freeze doesn’t offer 100% protection from identity theft. Thieves can use your personal information to commit other types of fraud, like tax fraud. And they still might be able to commit account takeover fraud, which happens when someone hacks into one of your existing accounts and makes themselves a primary or authorized user on the account. The thief may change the password and email address on the account, making it difficult for you to take possession of the account again.
Unfreezing your credit reports when you need to can be inconvenient. You’ll have to contact each bureau and then wait for your credit reports to unfreeze before making your credit application.
Experian. "What Is a Credit Freeze?" Accessed June 6, 2020.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "What Does It Mean to Put a Security Freeze on My Credit Report?" Accessed June 6, 2020.
Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. "List of Consumer Reporting Companies," Page 4. Accessed June 6, 2020.
Federal Trade Commission. "Credit Freeze FAQs: Can Anyone See My Credit Report If It Is Frozen?" Accessed June 6, 2020.
Federal Trade Commission. "Credit Freeze FAQs: Does a Credit Freeze Stop Prescreened Credit Offers?" Accessed June 6, 2020.
Federal Trade Commission. "Place a Fraud Alert." Accessed June 6, 2020.
TransUnion. "Lock Thieves out of Your TransUnion & Equifax Credit Reports." Accessed June 6, 2020.
Experian. "Account Takeover Fraud." Accessed June 6, 2020.