How To Freeze Your Credit for Free
Data breaches and identity theft are becoming increasingly commonplace in the United States. In 2020, the Federal Trade Commission received roughly 1.4 million consumer complaints about identity theft, which is nearly twice as many as there were in 20191.
Here’s everything you need to know about how to freeze your credit for free, including when it’s a good idea, why it works, and how to do it for your children.
How Does a Credit Freeze Work?
A credit freeze is a security measure that stops new creditors from accessing your credit reports. Pulling your credit report is a prerequisite for calculating your credit score, and your credit score is a prerequisite for opening many accounts. Freezing your credit thus effectively prevents identity thieves from opening credit accounts in your name.
Remember, creditors typically want to check your credit score and assess how likely you are to pay them back before they’ll lend to you. Freezing your credit report makes that impossible, so they won’t approve an identity thief’s application in your name.
Unfortunately, that also means an active freeze on your credit report prevents you from opening up credit accounts yourself. Creditors will deny all applications that require use of your credit file, whether they’re legitimate or not.
Once you’ve frozen your credit, you’ll need to unfreeze or “thaw” your reports before you can apply for new debt. Fortunately, the process isn’t too hard. You can easily unfreeze your credit temporarily when you need to apply for a new loan or credit card.
Be aware that when you freeze your credit reports, they stay frozen indefinitely. The only way to reverse the process is to actively contact the bureau and request that they thaw your credit.
How Can I Freeze My Credit for Free?
Freezing your credit is a straightforward process, and you never have to pay anything for it. Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion, the three major credit bureaus, offer the service for free.
Unfortunately, you have to send separate requests to each bureau to freeze their respective credit reports. Here’s how you can initiate the process at each credit reporting agency:
- Experian: Visit their Security Freeze Center or call them at 888-397-3742.
- Equifax: Visit their Consumer Services Center or call them at 888-298-0045.
- TransUnion: Visit their Credit Freeze page or call them at 888-909-8872.
To request a credit freeze, you’ll need to provide identification information. While the details can vary slightly between the bureaus, you always need to give them your name, date of birth, address, and Social Security number.
In addition, you may need to provide further proof that you are who you say you are. That might mean that you have to show some form of documentation like a driver’s license or answer some authentication questions.
If you ever need to open new accounts, rebuild credit, or finance a purchase, you can thaw your credit using the same online portal or phone numbers above. You may need to share some of the information you provided when you froze your credit in the first place.
In addition, you’ll need to submit a personal identification number (PIN) that you set up when you froze your report. If you don’t remember it, you’ll have to complete a few extra steps to recover it.
Finally, you’ll need to tell the bureau whether you want to unfreeze your report indefinitely or temporarily so a new creditor can check your score. If it’s the latter, you may also be able to give them one-time access to your file.
How Can I Freeze My Child’s Credit?
Children typically don’t have any credit history, so they generally don’t have credit reports either. Unfortunately, that doesn’t prevent thieves and scammers from stealing their identity and using it to open up credit accounts in their names.
In fact, child identity theft is a huge problem in our country, with around one million victims annually. The crime can go undiscovered for years since adults have fewer reasons to check their child’s credit than they do to pull their own free credit report.
Fortunately, freezing your child’s credit is similar to freezing your own. Legally, you can request that the bureaus freeze their reports for free until they turn 16 years old. If your child is 16 years or older, they can freeze their credit themselves.
They shouldn’t have a credit report, so the bureau will create one and freeze it immediately. If they do happen to have one already, that can be a sign of identity theft.
Though the process varies somewhat between each major credit bureau, you generally need to provide the following documents:
- Written request: Unfortunately, you can’t freeze your child’s credit over the phone or online. You need to mail in a written request to each bureau. Some have specific forms, while others may accept a letter.
- Documentation of your identities: As usual, you need to prove that you and your minor child are who you say you are. Usually, the easiest option is to provide copies of your Social Security cards.
- Proof of your authority: Finally, you need to provide documentation that proves you have the authority to act on your child’s behalf. Some examples include a valid power of attorney or a birth certificate showing proof of parentage.
Is Freezing Your Credit a Good Idea?
In general, freezing your credit is something experts recommend. It’s a valuable service and a good idea in most cases. There are several reasons why it’s beneficial to so many people, the most significant of which are the following:
- Identity theft protection: When your credit is frozen, new creditors can’t initiate hard credit inquiries on your report. As a result, thieves will struggle to open up fraudulent accounts in your name.
- Easily manageable: Managing creditor access to your reports has never been easier. You can freeze and thaw your credit online in just a few minutes, with minimal hassle.
- Legally guaranteed: As of 2018, federal law requires that the three major credit reporting agencies offer credit freezes for free. Since it costs nothing, there’s little reason not to take advantage of the service.
Freezing your credit is a great way to get some peace of mind in a world where your data is an increasingly hot commodity. In 2019 and 2020, 37% of Americans suffered from application fraud (when scammers used their identities to apply for credit).
Ultimately, freezing your credit is almost entirely upside. It doesn’t hurt your credit score, and you can bolster your defenses against thieves while investing none of your money and only a little of your time.
What Is the Downside of Freezing Your Credit?
Freezing your credit is overwhelmingly beneficial, but there are a couple of potential downsides. They shouldn’t dissuade you from initiating the process, but you should still be aware of them.
The most common reason people avoid freezing their credit reports is that it’s simply inconvenient. While you do have to reach out to each credit bureau individually to request that they freeze your credit, remember that it takes just minutes per bureau.
If you ever want to unfreeze your file to apply for a new account to help you build credit, you have to remember to thaw all three of your reports, or find out which bureau your potential creditor plans to check and unfreeze that one, then remember to refreeze it one the check is complete.
You also need to keep track of the PIN that lets you manage your credit freezes with each bureau. If you lose it, it can be tedious to go through the steps to recover or replace it.
In addition, credit freezing doesn’t protect you from all forms of identity theft. You still have to be vigilant about protecting your sensitive data, and scammers can still do a lot of damage to your finances if they obtain access to private information.
All things considered, the downsides to freezing your credit are minimal compared to the potential benefits it provides. On the whole, it’s almost always in your best interest to freeze your credit report when you’re not actively using your credit score, even if it can be a bit laborious.
Can My Frozen Reports Still Be Accessed?
In general, prospective creditors can’t access your frozen credit reports for the purposes of issuing a new credit account in your name. However, plenty of other entities can, including the following:
- Yourself: As the owner of your credit reports, you can still access your reports at any time.
- Current creditors: If you have an existing account with a creditor, they can still review your credit reports.
- Credit card issuers: You may still receive pre-qualified offers from credit card marketers as they can initiate soft inquiries on your report.
- Debt collectors: If you have a delinquent debt that a creditor sells to a collector, they can still check your report.
- Prospective employers: When you apply for a job, employers can still check your report when they run a background check.
- Prospective landlords: When you apply to rent a property, the owner can still pull your credit file as part of their background checks.
- Utility companies: These service providers can sometimes check your report when setting a security deposit amount to begin service.
- Insurance companies: Like utility companies, insurers can still check your report to inform the rates they offer you.
- Government agents: The government can still sometimes access your credit report, such as to execute a court order.
- Child support agencies: These organizations can still check your credit report to inform the size of your child support payment.
As you can see, the list of people who can access your credit report despite a freeze is surprisingly long. However, that doesn’t weaken the protection it gives you. It’s still much harder for thieves to open accounts in your name with creditors that check scores.
What Is the Difference Between a Credit Freeze and a Credit Lock?
A credit freeze and a credit lock are very similar. Both restrict third-party access to your credit reports and protect your identity against would-be thieves and fraudsters. However, there are some differences between them, including:
- Price: The Consumer Protection Act requires that the three major credit bureaus offer credit freezes for free, while credit locks often cost something. For example, Experian charges $24.99 for their CreditLock service.
- Convenience: Credit locks are often easier to manage than freezes, and you may be able to execute them faster. For example, TransUnion lets you instantly lock and unlock your credit through their app.
- Extras: A credit freeze is a standalone service, but credit locks are usually part of a broader benefits package. You often get features like identity theft insurance and a credit monitoring service with them.
Note that credit freezes and locks aren’t the only services that protect you against scammers. If you’re an identity theft victim, another great option is a fraud alert.
Fraud alerts require that creditors verify you’re the one applying for credit by contacting you directly when someone submits an application in your name.
How Can I Unfreeze My Credit?
Unfreezing or thawing your credit is a similar process to freezing it. You can initiate the process through each credit bureau’s online freeze center or by calling their respective phone numbers.
In addition, you generally need to share the same personal information you did when you requested the freeze initially. That includes details like your address, date of birth, and Social Security number.
You’ll also need to provide the PIN that the credit bureau assigned you when you froze your report. If you misplaced it, you’ll need to go through some steps to verify your identity before you can recover it.
Once you’ve completed the request requirements, you can instruct the credit bureau to unfreeze your report indefinitely or just long enough for a prospective creditor to pull the data and run a credit check.
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