Hacking and identity theft is on the rise, so the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has taken a major step toward consumer credit protection. On September 21, federal law mandated that all credit reporting agencies to provide a free credit freeze to anyone who requests it.
Prior to that date, credit freezes could have involved a fee.
Only you can request a freeze on your credit. Doing so prevents someone else who might have stolen your identity from making credit requests in your name. The process also allows you to temporarily or permanently, “unfreeze” your credit report using a PIN that the bureau provides when you initially request the freeze.
Why You Might Need To Freeze Your Credit
Why would you consider freezing your credit? Any of the following situations could crop up:
When to request a credit freeze
Why should you freeze your credit
If you’ve lost any of your credit cards or suspect someone has stolen them
The card “finder” can rack up hundreds of dollars of unwanted credit in your name.
Protect yourself with an immediate credit score freeze
If you are (or suspect you’ve been) a victim of identity theft
Thieves will initiate requests for credit on your behalf
Credit-providing institutions insist upon checking credit reports of applicants before approving
A frozen credit report means the lender is unable to verify the credit score and triggers a denial of application
If you notice your mail has been tampered
If mail with sensitive information goes missing, you could be a victim of credit fraud
Immediately freeze your credit report to investigate the situation
If you regularly receive mail from sources you don’t recognize
Notices or past-due bills from entities you don’t recognize or use another name is a sign of credit fraud
A credit report freeze can put a halt to this
There may be other reasons where a credit freeze is appropriate:
When you notice unexplained charges to your credit card, or
If a credit monitoring service is already watching your credit
A service provider (bank, insurance company, hotel) where you have legitimate credit relationships may notify you of a data breach
If you find yourself in any of the situations, but are not sure if a credit freeze is the way to go, at minimum, you should request a Fraud Alert on your account until you are sure of your next steps.
Fraud Alerts make it mandatory for credit providers to exercise extra diligence in verifying your identity before approving the transaction.
How To Freeze Your Credit For Free: Step-By-Step
Each of the three credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, have slightly different processes for requesting a credit score freeze.
However, they all involve submitting a formal request in order to initiate the freeze.
All three credit monitoring agencies also allow you to request a credit freeze on behalf of a child under the age of 16 or an incapacitated adult. The requirements for the latter two requests are slightly different than those that you need to request your own credit score freeze.
Here’s a step-by-step guide on how you can request a free credit report freeze at each of the credit reporting agencies.
1. How to Use Equifax
Equifax has a three-step online process in place to request a credit report freeze:
Provide personal information, including Social Security number or ITIN number, address and other contact details.
You’ll need to provide several pieces of information, including Social Security number, copies of official correspondence with your name and address, such as a copy of a utility bill, bank or insurance statement and a copy of a government-issued IDs such as driver’s license or state-issued ID.
All three websites offer additional options to help you manage the freeze request process. Once a freeze is in place, you can request a temporary “unfreeze” (also called a thaw) to allow an entity, whom you’ve authorized, to execute a one-time credit check. You can also permanently remove the freeze from your account using features provided on each bureau’s website.
Unfortunately, requesting a free credit freeze report doesn’t guarantee that no one will be able to access your credit score. If you have an existing and ongoing relationship with lenders and creditors, they may still have access to your credit score – even if you don’t unlock it or grant them permission to do so.
There are also a host of other agencies that might still be able to access a frozen credit report, including law enforcement, prospective employers, insurance companies and tenant screening agencies.
To make the freeze effective, you need to request it from all three credit reporting agencies – Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Freezing your report at one agency could still leave you exposed if the institution receiving the new (unauthorized) credit request verifies your credit through one of the other two bureaus.
Though it doesn’t necessarily impact your credit score, freezing will prevent you from getting expeditious access to additional credit (e.g. new loans or lines of credit). Your institution (bank, mortgage company) will need to request you to “unfreeze” your credit report first before they move forward with your application. Additionally, a credit report freeze will also restrict your use of third party tools to check your credit score.