Can you freeze an individual credit card?
Dear Credit Score Report,
Can 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 accomplish.
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.
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