Can you freeze an individual credit card?
Credit Score Report
Dear Credit Score Report,
I ask for a temporary freeze on the use of a credit card without closing the
card, and will that affect my credit score? -- Ken
You can ask your credit card issuer about freezing an
account, but to prevent the temporary use of specific plastic, you'll probably need
to take action yourself.
Luckily, you have a few options. The most sweeping
approach involves freezing your credit, which will prevent any new credit
accounts from being opened in your name. A credit freeze, however, won't prevent the
use of plastic you already carry. That's why you'll need a more precise technique:
In order to temporarily prevent charges on a specific credit card account, you'll
want to check with your bank or even simply render the card physically unusable. The right choice depends on what exactly you're trying to
First let's look at what some have called "the nuclear
option" -- a credit freeze. You can pay the three major credit bureaus --
Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- a total of up to $60 for a credit freeze,
which will temporarily restrict others from accessing your credit reports. A credit freeze will
prevent any new credit accounts from being opened in your name. However, while a
credit freeze (also called a "security freeze") has no impact on your
credit score, it also doesn't prevent the use of any existing cards. "It
makes obtaining brand new lines of credit slightly more cumbersome, but will
not affect the existing lines," says Joe Ridout, consumer services manager
with the nonprofit consumer rights group Consumer Action.
Based on your e-mail, however, it sounds like you're hoping
to lock an existing account. That's something experts aren't so sure is
possible. The reason? Banks typically freeze consumers' accounts for business purposes
rather than at the customer's request, explains Peter Garuccio, spokesman for
the American Bankers Association trade group. "Thus, they have the
technical capability to put a freeze on an account if a customer asks for one,
but whether or not they have a system in place for doing so is another matter,"
Garuccio says. He notes, for example, that customer service personnel may not be trained
to fulfill such a request.
"The bottom line is that it is going to depend on the
issuer," Garuccio says.
To find out how banks might treat such a request, I e-mailed
several major card issuers. While some banks were unavailable for comment,
Chase -- which is the No. 1 U.S. card issuer -- said it hasn't heard of credit
cardholders being given the option of freezing their accounts. Credit bureau Experian also said it hasn't
heard of such a practice.
If your card is lost or stolen, however, the bank may agree to a short freeze of just a few days. For example, Wells Fargo says it only allows cardholders to freeze an account for up to 48 hours if they lost the card and want to prevent its unauthorized use.
As for your individual lender, consumer advocates say you'll
need to ask. "I think that the answer might vary depending upon the
issuing financial institution," says Paul Stephens, director of policy and
advocacy with the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. "Some may offer
to temporarily freeze or block an account, while others might not, and would
insist upon an account closure." Such an account closure might impact your
credit score by changing your ratio of debt to available credit, also known as
your credit utilization.
Meanwhile, if the bank does allow you to freeze a credit
card, you'll need to find out whether it still gets reported to the three
credit bureaus. "Obviously, any
failure to report the card as having a credit line would impact upon
utilization ratios and other factors that affect a consumer's credit score,"
Stephens says. (You should also consider any recurring payments tied to your
credit card that will suddenly stop being paid.)
Of course, since it's unclear whether you'll be able to freeze
your account, the best option is to assume responsibility yourself. "Customers
can simply stop using their card, stick it in the sock drawer or freezer, or
even cut it up and request a replacement card later on down the road when
they're ready to use the account again," the ABA's Garuccio says.
See related: Put your credit report on ice with a credit freeze, How to safely, securely destroy a credit card: 6 tips, How to cancel a credit card
Jeremy M. Simon is a former CreditCards.com reporter who wrote about credit scoring, economic data, credit card crime and other issues. He is based in Austin, Texas. He is a graduate of Vassar College and has previously worked for Thomson Financial in New York City, where he wrote about the stock markets, and Texas Monthly, as well as several publications in Austin.
Published: November 23, 2010