A lost wallet or data breach raises your risk of identity theft exponentially. If you’ve been the victim of one of these unfortunate scenarios, it’s a good idea to safeguard your personal information by freezing your credit.
Credit freezes block unauthorized credit checks, which makes it difficult for criminals to open new accounts in your name and protects you from fraud, says Bobbi Rebell, a certified financial planner and personal finance expert.
Freezing your credit won’t magically clear up existing fraudulent charges, but it will keep whoever stole your information from setting up any dubious accounts with your details.
It won’t impact your credit score, Rebell says. And it won’t cost you a dime either: Thanks to a federal law enacted in 2018, the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, Experian and Transunion—must allow consumers to freeze and unfreeze their credit at any time for free.
Here’s how to do exactly that — and what you need to know before you take the first step.
Credit freeze vs. credit lock
The terms “credit freeze” and “credit lock” are sometimes used interchangeably, and they do offer the same protections — both let you block access to your credit report. Cost and ease are the two major differences, says Colleen McCreary, chief people officer and financial advocate at Credit Karma.
Freezes are free. By law, they must go into effect within one business day.
A credit lock is a paid service, and usually requires a subscription with one of the credit bureaus. Locks can be turned on and off instantly. Credit freezes, on the other hand, can take up to an hour to lift.
Should I freeze my credit?
A freeze may not affect your credit score, but it does have some downsides.
Since freezing your credit blocks credit checks, it could delay the processing of your credit applications in the future, according to McCreary.
“If you’re planning to apply for a credit card, mortgage or other financial product that requires a credit check in the next few weeks, it doesn’t make sense to freeze your credit,” she says. You’ll just have to lift the freeze again when you do.
And while the act of freezing your credit won’t change your credit score, it could still take a hit while your credit is frozen — like if you miss credit card payments. (You can still use your credit card to buy purchases while your credit is frozen, so you’re still expected to pay your bill.)
Freezing your credit also won’t automatically resolve all the problems that come with having your identity stolen. Rather, it serves as a defense against future fraud and identity theft.
“There’s only so much that a credit freeze is going to do,” McCreary says. “It only prevents unauthorized people from opening up new lines of credit in your name.”
So no matter what you decide, always keep an eye on your credit card and bank statements. You can also set fraud alerts with each of the credit bureaus, so you’ll automatically be notified of suspicious activity.
How to freeze your credit
To freeze your credit, contact the three national credit bureaus, either by phone or using their online forms, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Here are the details:
You’ll be asked for personal information like your name, address, birthdate and Social Security number. Each credit bureaus will give you a unique PIN, which you’ll need to hang on to if you want to unfreeze your credit later.
How to unfreeze your credit
If you’re applying for a loan or opening a new line of credit, you’ll need to unfreeze your credit.
You can do this either temporarily or permanently by contacting the three credit bureaus listed above, and providing your unique PIN, Rebell says. For a temporary unfreeze, it might be easier, and faster, to find out which specific credit bureau the lender will contact, and only unfreeze your credit through that particular agency. (If you do this online, it should only take a few minutes.) If you want to permanently freeze your credit, you’ll need to contact all three bureaus.
Note that you don’t need to unfreeze your credit when applying for a job, renting an apartment or getting insurance, as a freeze won’t affect the application process for these things, the FTC says.
Who can view a frozen credit report?
Credit freezes block most people, aside from you, from accessing your credit report, but there are a few exceptions.
Entities that had access to your credit before the freeze, like creditors, debt collectors, and marketers, will still have access.
Also, if you’re applying for jobs, potential employers can check your credit — but only with your consent.