Freezing your credit can be useful in preventing identity theft. (iStock)
Falling victim to identity theft can be devastating to your finances, but you’re not completely helpless against it.
Losses associated with new account fraud—the practice of opening new credit accounts in someone else’s name without their permission—reached $3.4 billion in 2018, according to Javelin Strategy & Research. One way to prevent it from happening is by freezing your credit.
You can freeze your credit whether you think someone has stolen your Social Security number — and the peace of mind you can gain from the process can be worth it — even if identity theft isn’t an immediate threat. Here’s how to freeze your credit.
1. Contact the three major credit reporting agencies
If you’re just placing an initial fraud alert on your credit report, which lasts for 90 days and alerts creditors that your identity may be compromised, you only need to contact one of the three major credit bureaus. Once Experian, Equifax or TransUnion has received your request, it will pass the information along to the other two.
With credit freezes, however, you need to contact each credit bureau individually. Here’s how to put a freeze on your credit with each one:
- Experian: Submit your request online or by calling the Experian credit freeze phone number at 888-397-3742
- Equifax: Submit your request online or by calling the Equifax credit freeze phone number at 800-349-9960
- TransUnion: Submit your request online or by calling the TransUnion credit freeze phone number at 888-909-8872
You may also take advantage of paid features, such as Experian Credit Lock, which makes it easy to freeze your credit report and also get real-time alerts when someone tries to apply for credit in your name while it’s locked.
2. Provide your personal information
Experian, Equifax and TransUnion will all ask for your personal information to make sure they freeze the correct credit report. That information includes your:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Social Security number or individual taxpayer identification number
- Phone number
- Email address
- Current address
3. Create or receive a PIN
Experian and TransUnion require you to create a personal identification number (PIN), which you’ll use to manage your account in the future. That includes reviewing your freeze, temporarily lifting it and removing it altogether. Make sure you choose a PIN that you can remember easily, so you don’t have to write it down for someone else to find.
Equifax does not require a PIN, but takes other steps to make sure it’s you.
4. Verify your identity
You may need to answer some questions about yourself to prove that you are who you say you are. These verification questions often touch on aspects of your life that an identity thief may have a hard time knowing.
For example, you may be asked how much your current mortgage payment is, which city or county you lived in during a certain time in the past or how long you’ve lived at your current address.
5. Know when to lift a freeze
Only you can view your credit reports if they’ve been frozen. While that helps ensure no one will use your name to open fraudulent credit cards or other accounts, it also means you won’t be able to apply for credit.
The good news is that you can unlock a credit freeze temporarily, making it possible for lenders to view your credit report for a period that you determine—you can choose between one and 30 days.
If you ask for a temporary lift online or by phone, the credit reporting agencies are required by law to complete your request within one hour.
The pros and cons of freezing your credit
Before you freeze your credit reports, take some time to consider both the benefits and drawbacks of doing so.
For example, pros include ensuring no one uses your credit information without your permission, especially people who want to use it for criminal purposes. Plus, freezing your credit is free and doesn’t affect your credit score.
On the flip side, freezing your credit does take some time because you have to contact all three credit bureaus separately. Also, you’ll need to keep track of PINs and have to go through the process of requesting a temporary lift when you want to apply for credit. Finally, freezing your credit won’t help you if someone has fraudulently accessed one of your current accounts.
However, if you’re concerned about someone stealing your identity, the downsides are only minor inconveniences compared with the safety you gain.