Cybersecurity experts called it a wake-up call: In September 2017, national credit bureau Equifax suffered a massive data breach that exposed the personal information of over 145 million customers. The breach was a startling reminder that your personal information might not be as secure as you would like to believe. It also woke many consumers up to the concept of freezing their credit.
Here’s a quick guide on how credit freezes work, how you can apply one yourself, and what you have to do to thaw your credit freeze. (See also: How to Protect Your Credit After the Equifax Breach)
What a credit freeze does
A credit freeze prevents lenders or financial institutions from accessing your credit report. It can also stop an identity thief from opening an account or getting credit in your name, even if they have accessed your personal information through a security breach like the one that hit Equifax in September.
Even if Equifax reports that you weren’t impacted by the breach (which you can check at EquifaxSeurity2017), you might still consider a credit freeze. Doing this stops any of your personal and financial information from being reported to lenders and creditors. This is important; if a thief tries to use this information to apply for a new credit card or loan in your name, the application would automatically be rejected. (See also: 5 Times You Must Freeze Your Credit Report)
How to apply a freeze
Even though Equifax suffered the breach, freezing your credit with Equifax alone is not enough. To completely protect your personal information, you must freeze your credit with all three national credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
The quickest way to do this is by logging onto the security freeze pages maintained by each bureau:
You can also call each of the bureaus by phone to request a credit freeze. You can reach Equifax at 1-800-685-1111, TransUnion at 1-888-909-8872, and Experian at 1-888-397-3742.
What you need for a freeze
First, you’ll usually have to pay to file a credit freeze. That fee varies depending on where you live. Fees typically range from $3 to $10, but in many states, this fee is waived if you can prove with an investigative or incident report that you already have been the victim of identity theft.
Depending on where you live, you’ll have to provide a list of documents that the credit bureaus can use to verify your identity. For instance, in California, you must provide your full name, including your middle initial and any suffixes such as “junior” or “senior.” You must also provide your Social Security number; complete addresses for the last two years; birth date; copy of a government-issued ID card such as a driver’s license or state ID card; and one copy of a utility bill, bank statement, insurance statement, or other form of proof of identity.
The credit bureaus will send you a letter confirming that your freeze is in place. It will remain in place until you ask to remove it.
You probably don’t want your credit freeze to remain in place forever. If you need to apply for a mortgage or auto loan, for instance, you’ll want lenders to be able to access your credit. Fortunately, each credit bureau will send you your own personal identification number — or PIN — that you can use to unfreeze and refreeze your credit.
If you are applying for a car loan, for instance, you can use your three PINs to temporarily unfreeze your credit. Your auto lender can then check your credit. Once your loan is granted, you can refreeze your credit with your PIN.
Unfreezing your credit can range from free to $12. You can unfreeze your credit for one specific creditor or for a set period of time.
Your credit freeze will remain in effect in most states until you request its removal. But in the states of Nebraska, Pennsylvania, Kentucky, and South Dakota, credit freezes are automatically removed after seven years. You can freeze your credit longer in these states, but you’ll have to remember to renew the freeze on your own.
The fraud alert alternative
A credit freeze is labor-intensive. It can also slow your ability to qualify for new loans or credit cards. As an alternative, you could consider signing up for fraud alerts from all three bureaus.
In a fraud alert, a credit-reporting agency will put a warning on your credit reports. This tells lenders that they need to carefully verify the identity of anyone trying to open an account in a consumer’s name. (See also: 9 Signs Your Identity Was Stolen)