Freezing your credit is your strongest tool to keep criminals from accessing your credit without your consent. And the recent Equifax data breach that affected about 143 million consumers offers a compelling case for being proactive. But a credit freeze comes at a cost, both in terms of money and inconvenience.
Here’s what it is, how to do it — and some pros and cons.
What does it mean to freeze my credit?
A freeze makes your credit reports inaccessible to most people, with some exceptions: You can access your own records, as can pre-existing creditors, debt collectors and a few others. It has no effect on your credit score.
Because new lenders and credit furnishers can’t view your credit history, they’re unlikely to approve a new credit line in your name.
If you think your data may have been compromised, especially your all-important Social Security number, establish a credit freeze.
How do I freeze my credit?
Contact each of the credit bureaus:
- Equifax: Call 800-349-9960 or go online
- Experian: Call 888‑397‑3742 or go online
- TransUnion: Call 888-909-8872 or go online
In most cases, you’ll have to pay to initiate the freeze. Once it’s set, it locks your credit file so nobody can access it unless you give direct authorization to the credit bureaus, usually through a PIN or password.
Store your PIN or password in a secure location. If you misplace it, you won’t be able to undo the freeze when you need to.
You also generally have to pay to thaw your credit anytime you wish to give someone access, such as allowing potential employers, utilities or landlords to check your credit, or when you apply for a credit card, loan or mortgage. Plan ahead, because it takes a few business days before your credit can be accessed.
The costs of freezing and thawing your credit will depend on your state’s laws. It’s relatively low — typically less than $20 (and in some states it is free for identity theft victims or senior citizens).
What are the pros of freezing my credit?
If you’re dealing with identity theft, freezing your credit lends peace of mind. No one will be able to open credit accounts in your name, which can save you the hassle and cost that comes along with having your identity stolen. Identity-theft victims won’t have to pay freezing fees, and putting a freeze on your credit won’t hurt your credit score.
If you have a mortgage in place and aren’t planning on moving in the near future, don’t need a car loan or new credit card, and don’t have an adult child who needs a co-signer, a credit freeze can be a good option for you.
What are the cons of freezing my credit?
The problem with freezing your credit is cost and inconvenience. You have to pay each credit bureau to impose the freeze and to lift it temporarily when you need a credit approval. It may take some time for the freeze to lift, so you have to plan ahead.
Also, you may still be susceptible to credit fraud. A credit freeze won’t affect your current accounts. So if a thief steals the information on an existing account, your credit may be used without your permission.
What else can I do to protect myself?
If a freeze isn’t right for you, a less-draconian alternative is a 90-day fraud alert, which tells potential creditors to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name. You simply notify one credit bureau that you want a fraud alert, and you’ll get one at all three bureaus. And it’s free.
In addition, you should get in the habit of monitoring your credit so you catch problems early.
You’re entitled to at least one free credit report from each credit bureau every 12 months via AnnualCreditReport.com. It’s wise to request and read them thoroughly every year. A freeze does not bar your access.
In between, use a source of a free credit report and score, such as NerdWallet, where you can sign in and review things as often as you like.
- New accounts that you didn’t open
- Credit inquiries that don’t match when you applied for credit
- Balances that don’t match your statements
Updated Sept. 8, 2017.