When the Equifax data breach was revealed last fall, you may have followed the advice of experts and frozen your credit. A freeze is the best way to keep your personal data from being used to open fraudulent credit accounts.
But it can also be an inconvenience: A freeze means no one can access your credit data, so you are likely to be denied things that require a credit check. Most people know their credit will be checked if they apply for a loan or credit card. But other things can trigger one, too, as some people found out when they tried to sign up for Obamacare last fall.
Your credit may be checked if you are:
- Being screened as a potential tenant
- Setting up an account with a utility company
- Switching phone carriers or cable providers
- Applying for a job
- Buying insurance
- Applying for in-store credit; for instance, to take advantage of discounts or deferred-interest offers
That said, unfreezing credit should be a small nuisance rather than a real obstacle.
Credit expert John Ulzheimer unfroze his credit online with his smartphone while sitting across the desk from a banker who was opening a new checking account for him. Ulzheimer asked which credit bureau would be checked and thawed the credit report for just that one.
What it takes to unfreeze credit
You can thaw your credit online, by phone or by mail. Unless you are certain which bureau’s credit file will be checked, you’ll need to unfreeze with each of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
You’ll need the PINs you received when you froze your credit and possibly a credit card, if there is a fee. In the case of TransUnion, you will also need your username and password.
You can choose how long you want the freeze to be lifted. TransUnion lets you choose up to 30 days, Equifax up to a year, and Experian has no upper limit.
New York Times columnist Ron Lieber says it takes him about 15 minutes to unfreeze his and his wife’s credit with all three bureaus, something he does when he wants to take advantage of a credit card deal, refinance a mortgage or shop for insurance. He says he “batches” the tasks that will require a look at his credit.
He said he’s had a freeze for at least 10 years and estimates he’s paid about $250 in fees to lift freezes for himself and his wife in that time.
Despite the occasional 15 minutes and fees, Lieber says a freeze has no real downside. It’s a good idea for just about everyone, except people who are “credit active” — chasing credit card deals or speeding debt paydown by moving balances onto a series of 0% interest cards.
Uh-oh, don’t know your PIN?
If you don’t have the PIN you got when you signed up for a freeze, now is a good time to retrieve or replace it.
You can do that online with Experian. You’ll be asked for your name, address, birthdate and Social Security number, then presented authentication questions to confirm your identity. If you successfully answer those, you’ll see a screen with your PIN and the option to print or have it emailed. If you aren’t able to do that, you can call 888-397-3742. If a replacement PIN is needed, Experian will mail it to you. Experian does not charge a fee for PIN recovery.
Equifax suggests that you request a new PIN in writing. You’ll need to send a copy of proof of identity, such as a driver’s license or birth certificate, and there may be a fee. The address is Equifax Security Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, GA 30348.
TransUnion requires that you request a PIN in writing, and send a copy of proof of identity. It also may charge a fee for the service. The address is P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016.
Once you have your PIN, make sure you put it where it is safe and you can find it.