The potential for becoming a victim of identity theft is greater than ever before. In fact, some figures estimate that as many as 15 million Americans personally experience some form of this crime each year. Cleaning up the mess that comes along with identity theft is likely to be a lengthy, troublesome process.
You’re bound to spend an excessive amount of time on the phone in an attempt to get your money back and get your credit to return to normal. You’ll have to call the companies where the fraud occurred and place a fraud alert on all 3 of your credit reports. Luckily, there’s a way to prevent going through this hassle.
A simple tool called a credit freeze can save you the headache of dealing with identity theft by potentially stopping it from happening altogether. Read on to find out more about a credit freeze and why you need one.
What is a credit freeze?
A credit freeze (also known as a credit report freeze or security freeze) allows you to restrict lenders and credit card companies from accessing your credit information. This helps stop identity theft because it prevents anyone from applying for loans or credit cards until you lift the freeze.
For example, let’s say an identity thief submits a credit card application using your social security number. The credit card company will most likely try to access your credit history to gauge how likely you are to make your monthly payments.
If you have a credit freeze in place, they won’t be able to access that information. They will deny the identity thief’s application.
When you have a security freeze in place, there are still a couple of situations in which someone may access your credit report. Your existing creditors or their debt collectors can still access the information. Government and child support agencies who have received authorization from a court order, subpoena, or search warrant can also.
However, since these companies and agencies aren’t associated with opening new lines of credit under your name, you don’t have to worry about identity theft in these situations.
What is a credit lock?
A credit lock is similar to a credit freeze. Credit locks allow you to restrict access to your credit file from most lenders. However, it allows you to unlock your credit report at any time. You can do it immediately on your computer or mobile device.
So, what’s the difference? The main difference is that it’s easier to unlock a credit lock than it is to unfreeze a credit freeze. This is because a credit freeze requires the use of a password-protected account or PIN number.
Why freeze your credit?
Freezing your credit report is a smart move because it offers credit protection even if your personal information has been compromised. That being said, you should consider freezing your credit report even if you’re not aware of your personal information being stolen.
It’s an easy step to take care of in advance of potential identity theft and is important to do because you may not even know that your information has been stolen.
Hackers are constantly attacking major companies around the world in an attempt to steal credit card numbers, social security numbers, and other personal data. To make matters worse, they may not even know about the compromised information until well after the attack has happened.
For example, 80 million members and employees of health insurance company Anthem had their social security numbers stolen in early December 2014.
However, Anthem didn’t even realize the data breach had occurred until late January 2015 and didn’t make any announcements for another week. That’s nearly two months where millions of consumers’ credit reports were available to identity thieves without them even knowing it.
Anthem eventually offered free credit monitoring services to members. However, having a simple security freeze in place would’ve provided an additional level of security, particularly during those first two months of ignorance.
How does a credit freeze affect your credit score?
Implementing a credit freeze does not affect your credit whatsoever. In fact, the only effect it has on your credit score is keeping it intact against potential threats from thieves.
A security freeze also doesn’t prevent you from receiving your free annual credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus. You can still request that information each year through AnnualCreditReport.com.
You’ll also still receive prescreened credit offers when you have a credit freeze in place. However, you can still opt out of those.
Another important point to note is that credit freezes only restrict lenders’ access to your credit report. It does not in any way monitor your bank or credit card activity. So, you still need to keep an eye on those transactions to ensure there is no suspicious activity.
Many banks will often set up alerts to detect odd spending patterns in your financial accounts, but you shouldn’t strictly rely on them to keep track of your money. For example, identity thieves opening new accounts in your name and using current accounts are two separate crimes. Therefore, they must be monitored and treated differently.
How much does it cost to freeze your credit?
As of Sept. 21, 2018, federal law requires all three major credit bureaus to free your credit for free.
Many states also offer this service for free to seniors over 65 years old. Otherwise, the costs typically range between $3 and $10. Unfortunately, you have to pay the fee for each credit bureau. So, realistically the total fees can range anywhere between $9 and $30.
You’ll also be charged fees for lifting the freezes, either temporarily or permanently. These costs range from $2 to $10 for each agency.
It may seem like the expenses associated with a credit freeze could add up quickly. But in reality, they are quite minimal considering the time and cost of recovering misused funds and repairing your credit that an identity thief has hijacked.
How do you unfreeze your credit report?
There are two ways to lift a credit freeze: either temporarily or permanently. A temporary lift is used when you’re applying for a loan, a credit card, or even a job that requires an extensive background check.
Just be sure to plan in advance for the credit check because it can take up to three business days after you submit the request for the agency to actually lift the security freeze.
To save yourself a bit of time and money, you can ask the lender or potential employer which credit reporting agency they plan on contacting. That way, you can just lift that one specific credit freeze.
A permanent lift, as the name indicates, entirely removes the credit freeze from your credit report. Whichever option you choose, you’ll need your PIN. You should’ve received it in a confirmation letter when you initially put the credit freeze into place.
You’ll have separate PINs for each credit reporting agency, so be sure to place all three in a secure location.
What happens if you lose your security PIN?
If you lose or misplace your security PIN for one (or all) of the three credit bureaus, you’ll need to contact each one in writing individually.
Along with your request, be sure to send a copy of your proof of identification, such as your driver’s license, birth certificate, or passport. There will likely be a fee assessed for sending you a new PIN. Fees typically range between $5 and $10, depending on your state.
What other things can you do to prevent identity theft?
There are three types of identity theft as categorized by the Bureau of Justice:
- Unauthorized use of an existing credit account.
- Unauthorized use of personal information to open a new account.
- Misuse of personal information for fraudulent purposes.
Attempts at any of these actions also constitute fraud.
In addition to implementing a credit freeze, there are a few other proactive ways to prevent identity theft. The first is placing a fraud alert on your credit report.
A fraud alert requires creditors to verify your identity before offering any credit. The company will try to get in touch with you to do this, so make sure your contact information is up to date.
You only have to request a fraud alert from one of the major credit reporting agencies, then that agency will notify the other two of your request. Fraud alerts are free for 90 days and can be renewed.
Another option is to sign up for a credit monitoring service, which can track your credit activity, notify you of any changes to your credit score, or potentially both.
The exact services and costs vary depending on the company you select, so do your research before choosing one. To help you out, we’ve created a roundup of the best credit monitoring services for 2022.
Identity theft has unfortunately become a common occurrence in the modern world. As a result, it’s becoming more and more likely that you’ll be affected by this criminal practice at some point in your life.
Protect your finances by taking proactive steps to fight against becoming a victim. While there are many products and services available today, implementing a credit freeze is a simple, low-cost solution to prevent thieves from opening new credit accounts with your personal information.