Wealth and Wants

How to freeze your credit: A step-by-step guide


Starting Sept. 21, credit freezes will be free in all 50 states. Here’s how to put the ice on potential fraudsters.

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As I discussed in a previous post, today is a big day for consumers because it’s now free to freeze your credit in all 50 states. This is the best way to prevent fraudsters from opening credit accounts in your name. But exactly how do you initiate a credit freeze?

The easiest way to do so is online.

  • Equifax, Experian and TransUnion all accept credit freeze requests online.
  • You will need to initiate contact with all three bureaus separately.
  • It’s an easy process that should only take a few minutes; you just need to fill in some personal information such as your name, address and Social Security number.
  • You can also place a credit freeze with all three bureaus by telephone or by mail. And TransUnion allows freezes through its mobile app.

How to unfreeze your credit

It’s important to note that you’ll receive a personal identification number (PIN) when you freeze your credit. Keep it somewhere safe. You’ll need it anytime you want to lift the credit freeze. That’s right, credit freezes are that good. They prevent anyone from opening credit in your name, even you.

When you’re legitimately in the market for a new credit card, mortgage, auto loan or anything else that requires a credit check, you will need to notify Equifax, Experian and TransUnion through the methods listed above – the same ones used to freeze your credit – to temporarily lift the freeze.

See related: Credit monitoring: When is it worth paying for?

The new law mandates that credit freezes can be lifted in less than one hour, but I recommend allowing a bit more lead time. For example, if you’re planning on car shopping soon, I’d lift the freeze about three business days before applying for an auto loan. That gives you a grace period in case you hit an unexpected delay. You don’t want to be stuck twiddling your thumbs in the finance manager’s office at your local car dealership, unable to secure financing because your credit is frozen, you can’t get the website to cooperate and there’s a long wait to speak with a phone representative.

What could still be improved

While I love the concept of free credit freezes – until recently, the fees were as high as $30 to freeze your credit and another $30 each time you needed to lift the freeze – I think it would be even better if the default setting for one’s credit is frozen. This would be similar to automatic enrollment for workplace retirement plans, a practice that has greatly boosted participation.

It would be tough to get that sort of mandate passed through Congress, so a compromise could be to automatically freeze everyone’s credit until age 18. A lot of child identity theft occurs, and it’s not top of mind for parents to check their elementary schooler’s credit report because there shouldn’t be anything on there. If a child’s Social Security number is compromised, it often goes undetected for many years. Even more realistically, I think a credit freeze initiated with one bureau should automatically be extended to the other two.

See related: How to check your child’s credit report

And the process for dealing with a lost PIN should absolutely be streamlined. One of my colleagues unfortunately found herself in this situation, and she’s having a heck of a time unfreezing her credit. The bureaus say they offer a way around this, but my coworker is finding this to be very confusing and time-consuming, and the customer service reps she has spoken with have not been very helpful.

The very nature of a PIN seems outdated. Case in point: when consumers froze their credit with Equifax soon after the company’s 2017 data breach, Equifax gave out PINs that were simply the date and time the freeze was enacted, rather than random digits. That wasn’t a very secure way to deal with a data security problem! Crooks could track that down pretty easily, just like they can research your mother’s maiden name, your pet’s name and the answers to other potentially faulty security questions. That’s why I’m a big fan of using biometrics for secure identification, but it’s going a be a while before these practices go mainstream.

Credit freezes aren’t perfect, but they’re the best defense you have against identity theft, and they’re now free throughout the U.S. That’s a consumer victory worth celebrating.

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