When a thief steals your identity, one of the main ways he or she can hurt you is to obtain credit in your name, credit for which you will then be responsible. A credit freeze is one means that you have to fight back against the crime of identity theft.
What is a Credit Freeze?
When someone seeks credit—for instance an identity thief using your name—the potential creditor will normally consult the person’s credit report, which is obtainable from any one of the three main credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion).
A credit freeze is a notification to each of these credit bureaus that you do not want your credit report made available to anyone, because you suspect someone other than you will be the one seeking credit in your name. Once a credit freeze is in place, any potential creditor seeking your credit report will be told that that information is not available. If they are not able to obtain a credit report, then they will likely turn down the request for credit.
Hence a credit freeze makes it highly unlikely anyone will be able to obtain credit in your name.
What is the Law Regarding Credit Freezes?
State law varies on credit freezes. 47 states (all but Alabama, Michigan, and Missouri) and the District of Columbia mandate that the credit bureaus allow you to put a credit freeze on your credit report. Four of those 47 (Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, South Dakota) mandate it only for consumers who can establish that they have been the victim of identity theft.
However, even for residents of the states whose laws either do not require that credit freezes be made available, or only require that they be made available to those who have already been victims of identity theft, all three credit bureaus as a matter of policy now voluntarily offer credit freezes.
How Does One Institute a Credit Freeze?
In order to have a credit freeze put in place, you must contact each of the three credit bureaus separately to request it:
Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
How much you will pay for a credit freeze also varies according to state law. Most commonly, there will be a $10 fee to each of the credit bureaus to implement the credit freeze, a $10 fee any time you need it lifted temporarily, and another $10 fee to each of the credit bureaus when you want it ended completely.
Does a Credit Freeze Allow for Any Exceptions?
When you have a credit freeze on your credit report, access is not completely denied to everyone. You yourself will still be able to obtain your credit report. (Federal law entitles you to one free copy of your credit report each year from each of the credit bureaus; you may purchase additional copies.) Your already existing creditors will still have access to your credit report. New creditors will have access to your credit report only if you provide them with a special PIN number; otherwise they will not.
Kimberly Lankford, “Fraud Alert vs. Credit Freeze.” Kiplinger.
“Consumers Union’s Guide to Security Freeze Protection.” Consumer’s Union.
“Defend: Recover from Identity Theft.” FTC.gov.