Hardly a month passes without news of a data breach that has put people’s identities at risk. The Insurance Information Institute (III) reports that in 2018, 40% of identity theft cases were from thieves opening new credit card accounts in other people’s names. When your information gets stolen and used, it takes weeks or months to clear up all of the false charges and erase the damage.

The best way to significantly lower the risk of this happening is to freeze your credit. A credit freeze will help prevent new accounts from being opened, decreasing your risk of identity theft. Placing a credit freeze on your accounts will not guarantee that you won’t end up a victim of credit card fraud or identity theft, but it is a worthwhile prevention measure. Freezing your credit is a simple, straightforward process that only takes a short amount of time to complete.

How do you freeze your credit at each bureau?

Placing a security freeze is easy to do, though you will have to do it with all three major credit reporting bureaus: Experian, Equifax and Transunion.

The reason you need to freeze your credit with each bureau is that most lenders only your credit with one bureau during the application process, not all three. For example, if you only freeze your credit with Experian, a thief could still open accounts if the issuer uses Transunion to run your credit.

Your current account issuers will still have access to your credit reports, though, so there is a slight risk that a thief could open an account at a bank that you’re already using. Luckily, the III reports that incidents like that account for only 10% of identity theft.

All three credit bureaus make it easy for you to use their websites to place a freeze on your credit. You can also call their offices or send a request via mail. Mail requests should clearly state your name, address, phone number and social security number.

Credit Bureau Online By Phone By Mail
Experian www.experian.com 1-888-397-3742 P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
Equifax www.equifax.com 1-888-298-0045 P.O. Box 740256 Atlanta, GA 30374
Transunion www.transunion.com 1-888-909-8872 P.O. Box 160 Woodlyn, PA 19094

You can generally expect the freeze to go into effect within a couple of hours of submitting your online or phone request. There’s a similar time frame for unfreezing your credit. When you know potential lenders need to access your information, unfreeze your credit a day in advance. Be sure to set a reminder on your phone to go back and freeze it again once you’re done with the loan processing. Doing this process by mail will take significantly longer than the other methods.

What information will I need to provide to freeze my credit?

Once you decide to freeze your credit, you’ll need to provide some basic information to complete the process. You typically need to give your name, address, phone number, date of birth and social security number. Other personal information might be requested in order to verify your identity.

After you submit your request, you’ll create or receive a personal identification number (PIN) or password. You’ll need this in case you choose to temporarily unfreeze your credit in the future, so keep it in a safe place. If you lose it, it is possible to get a new one, but you will have to go through additional identity verification measures.

It’s a good idea to freeze your credit at all three bureaus in one sitting. Set aside a block of time, about 30 minutes, to fill out the online forms or make calls to all three credit bureaus.

Pros and cons of freezing your credit

As with any financial decision, it’s wise to weigh the pros and cons.

Some of the pros of freezing your credit are:

  • Credit freezes are free. Since it is free, there’s nothing to keep you from protecting yourself by freezing your credit. You don’t need to do anything until you want to unfreeze it.
  • It provides peace of mind knowing that there’s one extra layer of protection in place to prevent you from being a victim of identity theft. You still need to pay attention to your accounts, but you will sleep better knowing that it’s unlikely that someone can go on a shopping spree in your name.
  • There’s no impact to your credit scores, and you can continue to use existing credit cards without any issue. You can continue building your credit with the credit card you already have without any issues.

On the other hand, the cons to doing a credit freeze are:

  • Thieves can still make charges to existing accounts. Continue to carefully monitor your financial accounts. Consider closing ones that you no longer use or need.
  • Potential lenders and insurance companies will not be allowed access to your credit reports. Fortunately, you only need to be proactive. Unfreeze your accounts when you’re ready to do things like take out a mortgage or change insurance providers.
  • You need to contact all three credit reporting bureaus each time. Freezing or unfreezing your accounts will take a minimum of three phone calls or filling out online forms three times — one call or form to each credit bureau.

With the added security that freezing your credit gives you paired with how easy it is to freeze, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t freeze your credit. When the time comes to take out a new auto loan or get a mortgage, you can unfreeze it. Once your financing is approved, freeze it again.

It cannot be stressed enough that freezing your credit is not 100% effective. Make it a monthly habit to review all of your credit charges, and be sure to review your three free annual credit reports each year.