Placing a credit freeze on your credit file prevents most entities from accessing the information in your credit report.
While it’s not a foolproof solution against identity theft or fraud, many people who have been victims of credit-related hacks or fraud use a credit freeze to protect against future attacks.
What is a credit freeze?
While anyone can use a credit freeze, you see them most often when someone has been the victim of identity theft or fraud. Sometimes called a “security freeze,” a credit freeze stops others from accessing the information in your credit file.
This means that financial institutions, potential creditors, and other entities can’t make inquiries about your creditworthiness. If they can’t check your credit, they’re unlikely to approve any credit applications submitted in your name.
This makes it much more difficult for thieves and fraudsters to open unauthorized accounts. You can still apply for new credit with a credit freeze on your file, but you’ll have to lift the freeze each time you wish to apply.
It’s free to freeze your credit, but you have to go through the process with each major credit bureau, as there is no way to freeze all your credit files at once. It’s also important to note that a credit freeze can’t offer total protection, so it’s crucial to check your credit reports on a regular basis.
Does a credit freeze affect your credit?
A credit freeze won’t affect your credit or lower your credit score. However, having a credit freeze in place means you can’t apply for instant credit.
For example, if you’re shopping and want to open a store credit card at a retailer, the credit freeze will stop you from getting approved on the spot. Instead, you must ask the credit bureaus to temporarily lift (or “thaw”) the freeze so you can apply for credit.
In most cases, the credit bureaus will issue you a username and password or a personal identification number (PIN) when they put the credit freeze in place. When you want to apply for new credit, you simply call the bureaus and give them your password or PIN so they can lift the freeze while you submit your credit application.
Credit freeze vs. credit lock: Which one should I choose?
“Credit freeze” and “credit lock” are often used interchangeably. While both are designed to protect your credit against would-be thieves and scammers, there are important differences.
The main difference is that a credit freeze is always free, while a credit lock may come with a fee. This is because the federal government requires the three major credit bureaus to offer credit freezes (and unfreezes) free to consumers free of charge.
By contrast, credit locks are largely offered by the credit bureaus and third parties as fee-based credit protection services. Unlike credit freezes, credit locks aren’t regulated by federal consumer protection laws, which means they don’t come with the same menu of legal remedies if a thief gains access to your credit file.
On the other hand, credit locks can be a bit easier to use, as you have the ability to lock and unlock your credit file on your own rather than calling the credit bureaus and asking them to temporarily unfreeze your file each time you want to apply for new credit.
If you choose to pay for a credit lock, you’ll get the most protection if you lock your credit with all three credit bureaus.
- Equifax – Equifax offers a free credit lock service called Lock & Alert. Once you sign up, you lock and unlock your credit using a free app.
- Experian – To get a credit lock with Experian, you must sign up for one of Experian’s credit monitoring plans. The most affordable plan is the IdentityWorks Plus plan, which is $9.99 per month and comes with credit alerts, identity theft insurance, and a credit lock.
- TransUnion – TransUnion offers a free credit lock service through TrueIdentity, which allows you to lock and unlock your TransUnion credit report. You can also purchase the Credit Lock Plus plan for $24.95 a month to lock your TransUnion and Equifax reports.
Pros vs. Cons of freezing credit
While freezing your credit can help protect you against someone opening fraudulent accounts in your name, there are some possible drawbacks. Here are the pros and cons you need to know.
The pros of freezing your credit
- Stop identity thieves – Freezing your credit file reduces the likelihood of an authorized person opening a credit account in your name.
- Won’t hurt your credit score – There is no negative impact on your credit score when you freeze your credit.
- Free – It’s free to freeze and unfreeze your credit.
- Never expires – Depending on where you live, most credit freezes stay in place until you lift them, so you never have to worry about re-freezing your credit file.
- Cut back on impulse credit applications – Freezing your credit can be a deterrent to applying for instant credit.
The cons of freezing your credit
- Not 100% foolproof – A credit freeze isn’t a total guarantee against identity theft or fraud.
- Inconvenient – Credit freezes stop others from accessing your credit file, but they also make it harder for you to apply for new credit. Each time you want to apply, you must contact each credit bureau and unfreeze your credit.
Overall, however, a credit freeze is more convenient than dealing with the aftermath of a fraudulent account on your credit report. Whether you choose a credit freeze or a credit lock, having some kind of protection against fraud can give you peace of mind.
How do I freeze my credit for free?
Federal law requires the credit bureaus to offer credit freezes for free. However, there is no mechanism for freezing your credit file with all three major bureaus at once, so you’ll need to go one by one to put a freeze in place.
- Equifax – You can freeze your credit online or do it over the phone by calling 1-800-685-1111.
- Experian – Experian lets you place a freeze online or over the phone. The number for Experian is 1-888-397-3742.
- TransUnion – You can freeze your credit file with TransUnion online or by phone by calling 1-888-909-8872.
When you ask the credit bureaus to freeze your credit, you will need to provide proof of your identity. You’ll need to provide your social security number, a photo ID, and verification of your current address.
After you request the credit freeze, the credit bureaus will give you a PIN, which you must use any time you wish to unfreeze your credit. This allows you to apply for new credit and then put the freeze back in place after you have submitted your credit application.
How long do credit freezes last?
In most cases, a credit freeze lasts as long as you leave it in place, and there is no need to renew it. In a handful of states, credit freezes expire after seven years.
Can I still use my credit card if I freeze my credit?
A credit freeze won’t affect your existing credit cards. You can still use your cards as you normally would without any extra steps or procedures.
However, a credit freeze will affect any new credit offers or applications. For example, if you want to apply for a credit card while you’re in the store, you are unlikely to get approved, as you must first authorize the bureaus to lift the credit freeze so the creditor can check your credit.
How to remove a credit freeze
To remove a credit freeze, you will need to contact each bureau where you have a freeze in place. You can request a temporary thaw if you need to apply for new credit, or you can ask the bureau to remove the freeze completely.
- Experian – The process for temporarily or permanently removing a credit freeze with Experian is the same. You simply submit a form online, checking either “temporary” or “permanent” depending on whether you want the freeze put back in place on a certain date.
- Equifax – You can remove a credit freeze from your Equifax credit report by selecting “manage a freeze” from the security freeze page on the Equifax website.
- TransUnion – You can unfreeze your credit through TransUnion by clicking the “unfreeze” button on the credit freeze page and following the prompts.
A credit freeze can help protect your credit file from scammers and identity thieves. While having a freeze on your credit file can be an inconvenience when you want to apply for new credit, the peace of mind can be a worthy tradeoff if you’re worried about preventing fraudulent activity.