Last updated on March 8th, 2023
Credit card fraud is like a bogeyman in the night; it’s scary, it can be embarrassing (and financially devastating) when it affects us, and often we don’t even realize it’s there – so what can be done to prevent it? Several options are designed to protect you as a consumer, including credit locks and fraud alerts, but perhaps the easiest option to avoid credit card fraud is to freeze your credit. Here is what you should know about freezing your credit:
What is a Credit Freeze?
When credit bureaus restrict access to your credit report, it is called a credit freeze. A credit freeze is the best way to prevent your credit report release and the information it contains. The credit freeze process is entirely voluntary. To initiate a freeze, you will need to contact each credit bureau separately.
While reviewing a credit card application (or loan application), if a credit issuer cannot see your report, they will not allow you to open a new account. This benefit is advantageous because it makes it extremely difficult for an identity thief to open a fraudulent account in your name. Thanks to this, a credit freeze is widely considered the most robust protection you can take against fraudsters if your information has been compromised.
How to Freeze Your Credit Report
There are several ways to freeze your credit with all three major credit reporting bureaus: Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
Freeze Your Credit Online
Typically, freezing your credit with each credit bureau is the easiest online. This process involves visiting the credit bureau’s website, providing identifying information, and answering challenge questions to ensure you are who you say you are.
Examples of identification required include:
- Full name and address
- Social Security Number
- Date of Birth
Once you provide this information, you can anticipate challenge questions that ask about previous addresses, past credit card accounts, and other financial questions. These are questions to which only you should know the answers.
A confirmation screen will load with a confirmation that your security freeze was successful once you answer all questions. The credit bureau will also display a unique PIN in the body of this message. This PIN is for unfreezing your credit report in the future.
Freeze Your Credit By Mail or Phone
Freezing your credit report by mail or phone is another option. This process is more elaborate, as it involves sending documentation to the credit bureaus for verification. This information includes copies of:
- S. passport or state ID card
- Social Security card
- Proof of address (or up to two years of evidence)
You can contact the three major credit bureaus at the following addresses and phone numbers:
How Much Does It Cost to Freeze (or Unfreeze) My Credit?
Until recently, each time you froze or unfroze your credit, you’d need to pay a fee. Luckily, due to increased consumer concern due to a growing number of data breaches, the three major credit bureaus no longer charge any money to freeze or unfreeze your credit.
All you’ll need to do is contact each of the three bureaus individually; bear in mind that each has a slightly different process. The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act became federal law on September 21, 2018, and is the reason that consumers can now freeze and unfreeze their credit reports for free whenever they’d like.
How to Unfreeze Your Credit Report
When you freeze your credit, you must contact each of the credit bureaus; that bureau assigns a unique PIN code; you’ll receive one for each credit bureau. To unfreeze your credit, you must contact each bureau again and supply them with the unique PIN. If you have lost or forgotten your PIN, it will take longer to “thaw” your credit.
Alternatively, with locked credit, you can unlock your credit report at any time, with minimal delay, by using your computer or mobile device to access the credit lock programs you signed up for. You can unlock your credit for as long as you need to, then lock it again immediately, from the comfort of your home or directly from your phone.
What is the Difference Between a Credit Freeze and a Fraud Alert?
What is a Fraud Alert?
A fraud alert is used to notify lenders to call you to verify your identity before extending new credit. It’s an extra step used to ensure that you are who you say you are; fraud alerts are free and do not affect your credit score.
Additionally, a fraud alert will not block access to your credit report, which is what sets it apart from a credit freeze or a credit lock. A fraud alert can last up to one year, unlike a freeze, which requires you to contact each credit reporting agency to lift.
Additionally, a fraud alert only needs to be added with one credit bureau – they will notify the other two; to place or remove a credit freeze, you are required to contact each credit bureau each time. Experian recommends adding a fraud alert as a first step when you believe you are the victim of fraud or you have noticed unexplained transactions or withdrawals, but cautions that you should consider a credit freeze as a greater precaution.
The Differences Between a Credit Lock and a Credit Freeze
The terms “credit freeze” and “credit lock” are often used interchangeably. While they do offer similar protections, it’s important to note several key differences between the two. Most notably, it’s easier to unlock a credit lock than it is to “thaw” a credit freeze.
Essentially, while a credit lock provides more flexibility than a credit freeze, it is also not as secure. Most experts recommend a credit freeze rather than a credit lock. Another significant distinction between a credit lock and a credit freeze is that a credit lock is not governed by federal law, unlike a freeze. Each credit bureau’s service agreements clarify that there is no guarantee of uninterrupted service or error-free operation with a credit lock.
What Is a Credit Lock?
A credit lock is a security measure that puts a lock on your credit reports; it prevents creditors from accessing your credit report for most applications, but it won’t stop your credit score from changing while the lock is in place. It does permit creditors to see your credit report if they first verify your identity.
A credit lock is a preventative program that you can sign up for from each of the three credit bureaus. Equifax calls the process Lock & Alert. Experian bundles it with other services and charges a fee for it along with identity theft insurance and alerts. TransUnion offers a service called TrueIdentity.