With all the recent data breaches in the news, I often get questions from friends, family, and others about what one should do. My best advice: freeze your credit.
What I have discovered is that many folks don’t understand exactly what this means, what it doesn’t mean, or how it works. This is my own guide to the subject of credit freezes.
What a Credit Freeze Is
Very simply, a credit freeze prevents anyone from accessing your credit report from any of the three U.S. credit reporting agencies (CRAs): Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax.
When you want to apply for credit, such as a credit card, personal loan, auto loan, mortgage, etc., the lender will pull a copy of your credit report from one (or more) of the CRAs. A credit freeze prevents them from pulling your credit report.
What a credit freeze also does is prevent a criminal who has obtained enough of your personal information (such as your name, address, date of birth, and Social Security Number) from opening a new credit account using your personal information.
When you legitimately want to apply for credit, you can temporarily lift the freeze using a PIN on the CRA’s website. All three CRAs allow you to do a temporary unfreeze for a defined period of time (a day, a week, etc.).
What a Credit Freeze Is Not
A credit freeze does not affect any current accounts that you have open. Your credit cards, bank accounts, home equity line of credit, and other similar accounts continue to work as they always have. You can make charges, payments, and conduct transactions. But you cannot open any new accounts, even with the same company.
How Do I Freeze and Unfreeze My Credit?
Freezing/unfreezing your credit is a very straightforward process. There may be a fee for doing this with two of the three CRAs. The fees are state sensitive. In my home state of Georgia, the fee for freezing (and unfreezing) is $3.00 with Experian and TransUnion. Equifax does not currently charge a fee to freeze/unfreeze your credit (as a gesture of goodwill due to the colossal data breach they experienced in 2017). You can look up these fees online here.
While all of the CRAs offer a telephone and postal mail option to freeze/unfreeze your credit, I’m only going to focus on the online method to do this.
When freezing/unfreezing your credit, you may also have to answer some knowledge-based questions, such as prior addresses, people who have lived with you, current lenders, etc. These questions are designed to ensure someone who has your personal information and SSN can’t freeze your credit and establish a PIN without your consent.
Make sure you store your PIN for each of the CRAs in a safe place! You won’t be able to unfreeze your credit online without it.
Another tip: When applying for credit, ask the lender which CRAs they use. Then only unfreeze your credit with that specific agency(ies). It will save the cost of the fees of doing this with all of them. And remember: Equifax is free!
- Go to the Experian Security Freeze website: https://www.experian.com/freeze/center.html
- Select “Add a security freeze”
- Click “Apply online”
You’ll need to enter information to validate your identity on the “Add security freeze” page. You’ll also be given the option to select your own PIN. If you don’t, the site will assign a random number for you.
Once you successfully validate your identity, you’ll be prompted to enter a credit card to pay the fee.
To unfreeze your credit, go back to the Experian Security Freeze website and follow the steps to “Remove a security freeze”. You’ll need your PIN to do this, and you’ll select the date range for the unfreeze. Again you’ll need a credit or debit card to pay the fee.
- Go to the TransUnion Credit Freeze website: https://freeze.transunion.com
Here you’ll have the option to Create a New Freeze or manage and existing freeze. TransUnion gives you the option of registering and setting up a User ID and Password. Make sure you select a strong password (using a Password Manager is also a really good idea).
- Select “Register” and then enter all the necessary information to set up your account, including a Secret Question/Answer to aide in password recovery.
Once you’re registered, you’ll need to a credit or debit card to pay the fee.
To unfreeze your credit, go back to the TransUnion Credit Freeze website, enter your user ID and password, then select the option to “Add a New Lift” (don’t select “Remove Freeze” as this will permanently remove your credit freeze.
Enter your credit/debit card info to cover the fee, then select the time period for the temporary lift (unfreeze).
- Go to the Equifax website: https://www.freeze.equifax.com
- Enter the required information, then you’ll be given the option to either add or lift (temporarily) a security freeze. If you’re setting a freeze for the first time, you’ll also be given a PIN, which you’ll need to unfreeze your credit later.
Again, no payment is required for this on the Equifax site.
I hope this information is helpful, and you’ll take the opportunity to freeze your credit. Don’t forget about your spouse and children. There are options with the CRAs to freeze your minor child’s credit, which you shouldn’t overlook.