Credit cards and personal information can (and do) get hacked or stolen. Because of this unfortunate reality, it’s important to know how to freeze your credit. A credit freeze can help prevent identity theft or obstruct bad actors from taking out new loans or accounts in a borrower’s name.
Freezing credit isn’t as scary as it might sound. In fact, once you know how to freeze (and unfreeze) your credit, it can be quite useful in the right situations.
What Is a Credit Freeze?
A credit freeze, also known as a security freeze, allows individuals to limit access to their individual credit report. By freezing their credit, the person makes it more difficult for an identity thief to open a new credit account or loan in their name. This is due to the fact that creditors generally review credit reports before okaying new lines of credit, known as a hard credit inquiry.
However, freezing one’s credit does not prevent a person from viewing their free annual credit report. Moreover, it won’t restrict a person from opening a new account in their own name. They’ll simply need to unfreeze their credit to do so (more on unfreezing later).
What Does Freezing Credit Actually Do?
A credit freeze does not actually freeze all outstanding accounts, such as credit cards and loans. Instead, it simply limits others from viewing a person’s credit reports. Under a credit freeze, only a limited number of entities will still be able to view a person’s file, including creditors for accounts that individual already holds and certain government entities.
This means that credit bureaus can’t give out personal information about a borrower with a frozen account to new lenders, landlords, hiring managers, or credit card companies. Typically, this halts the lending, renting, and hiring process — as well as anyone attempting to steal a person’s identity and open a new account in their name.
Freezing Credit: What’s the Process?
If a person wants to freeze their credit, they need to reach out to at least the three major credit bureaus:
• Equifax : 1-800-349-9960
• TransUnion : 1-888-909-8872
• Experian : 1-888-397-3742
Typically, the agencies will ask for a Social Security number, birth date, and other information confirming a person’s identity prior to freezing their account. The bureaus will then give the person a password, which they may use to unfreeze their account. Make sure to store this information in a safe place.
Does Freezing Credit Cost Anything?
It costs nothing to freeze and unfreeze one’s credit. This is thanks to the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act, which mandates that credit bureaus must offer the service free of charge to everyone.
The credit bureaus must fulfill the request within one business day when a consumer requests a freeze through any method aside from mail. When consumers request to lift the freeze by phone or online, however, the credit bureaus must do so within one hour. This frees up the consumer to quickly do what they may need to do, whether that’s applying for a new apartment or one of the various types of personal loans.
Differences Between a Credit Lock and a Credit Freeze
A credit lock works in much the same way as a credit freeze, allowing consumers to protect their credit reports against bad actors. But, a credit lock can come with a bit more convenience, as borrowers can opt to open and close their locked credit via an app (rather than needing to reach out to each credit bureau with their password to unfreeze it).
While a credit freeze is complimentary thanks to the federal mandate, a credit lock may require paying a small fee. For example, Equifax offers credit locks for free, while TransUnion offers a free lock with its TrueIdentity product or as an add-on to other subscription services. Experian, meanwhile, only offers credit lock as part of a paid subscription.
Just as you’d crunch the savings numbers with a personal loan calculator, make sure to weigh the costs and benefits between these two options as well.
When to Consider a Credit Freeze
It’s really up to individual consumers and their own risk tolerance to decide when it’s time to freeze their credit report. That being said, if a person isn’t actively shopping for a personal loan or a new credit card, for instance, it may be a good idea to freeze their credit preemptively. This way, a consumer can feel a bit more confident that their credit information is in safe hands.
Another time to consider a credit freeze is when a borrower believes their data may have been breached, or if their Social Security number was recently disclosed, made public, or stolen.
How to Unfreeze Your Credit
Unfreezing credit is simple. All a consumer has to do is reach out to the credit bureaus by phone or online and plug in the password or PIN provided to them when they first froze their credit. Generally, it takes a few minutes for the account to become unfrozen.
A person can choose to unfreeze their report at one or all of the credit bureaus, but they will have to contact each individual credit bureau separately. They also need to go through the entire process again if they ever want to re-freeze their credit down the road.
Individuals can ask to unfreeze their credit for a specific amount of time, such as if they are applying for and hoping to get approved for a personal loan or need someone else to access their account temporarily. Then, the freeze should return automatically when that period ends.
Alternatives to Freezing Credit
While not overly complex, freezing and unfreezing one’s credit can be time-consuming. Additional options are available to consumers.
Setting Up Credit Monitoring
Those who aren’t interested in freezing their accounts might instead consider signing up for a credit monitoring service. While these services charge a fee, they’ll alert users to any and all activity on their credit report. So, any time someone requests information, the person would find out and could then confirm or deny the authenticity of the request.
This could help stop any potential identity theft in its tracks. Still, it should be noted that this service cannot fully prevent theft, and the consumer may not know their identity was stolen until after the fact.
Requesting a Credit Report
For those interested in monitoring their credit for free, it’s possible to request a no-cost copy of one’s credit report each year from all of the major credit bureaus. The consumer might then review the report, in detail, to ensure they recognize all of the activity and accounts described.
If the consumer spots anything out of line, they can then take steps to flag and fix it.
Consolidating Credit Card Debt
Another way that some consumers choose to keep track of their credit is by consolidating credit card debt with a personal loan from a private lender. Taking out an unsecured personal loan with SoFi, for instance, could help substantially lower the amount a person pays each month to different credit card companies.
By consolidating credit card debt into a single personal loan — one of the common uses for personal loans — a borrower may be able to take advantage of a single fixed-rate debt rather than juggling several high-interest rate cards. Additionally, having a single loan to repay each month can make it easier to monitor payment activity.
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