If you’ve been hacked or your identity stolen, you know how vulnerable it can feel and how scary. Trying to make sense of it all and get your account straightened out can months or longer depending on how bad it is.
Even if you haven’t had the misfortune of experiencing identify theft, it can still be scary knowing your information could be out there on the dark web or in the hands of a hacker and you might not even know it.
Fortunately, there are ways you can protect yourself including freezing your credit. Even if a criminal has important information about you including your social security number and birthdate, if your credit is frozen, they won’t be able to do much with it.
It’s not the only way to protect yourself, but it can be one of the first steps you take to protect your information from hackers.
What Does it Mean to Freeze your Credit?
When you freeze your credit, no one has access to it including you. This protects your credit from any hackers accessing it and opening credit in your name. It’s free to freeze your credit and you can unfreeze it whenever you need to when you apply for new credit.
The only agencies that can access your credit include:
- Government agencies for child support
- Current creditors of accounts you hold
- Any credit monitoring companies you already hired
The Downsides of Freezing your Credit
While protecting yourself seems like it wouldn’t have any downsides, there are some things to consider when freezing your credit.
- It can be inconvenient
Every time you apply for new credit, you have to lift the freeze. This also applies to job applications, when you sign up for new utilities, or get new insurance. Some companies check your credit even if you aren’t getting credit from them. If you forget, your application may be denied only because they can’t access your credit.
It only takes a few seconds to unfreeze your credit, but again, if you forgot, it could be rather frustrating.
- You might think you’re safe
Freezing your credit protects you, but you must still take other precautions. If a hacker gets a hold of your social security number, there are other ways they can steal your identity and do damage to you financially. They could also get access to your bank accounts or even your tax refund, leaving you without your necessary funds. Don’t let a credit freeze make you feel 100% protected, it’s just one piece of the puzzle.
How to Freeze your Credit
You can freeze your credit over the phone or online. You must freeze your credit with each credit bureau – TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. Freezing it with one credit bureau doesn’t automatically freeze it with all.
Freeze your Credit with Equifax
To freeze your credit with Equifax, call 1-800-349-9960 or visit them online. You’ll provide your name, social security number, date of birth, address, and other personal information to start the process. Equifax will provide you with a password and PIN that you’ll need to unfreeze your credit in the future.
Freeze your Credit with TransUnion
To freeze your credit with TransUnion, call 1-888-909-8872 or visit them online. It’s free to freeze your credit and it happens in real-time. To confirm you are who you say you are, you will answer questions about your previous homes, loans, or other personal information to ensure that someone isn’t trying to access your account.
Freeze your Credit with Experian
It is also free to freeze your credit with Experian. You can call 1-888-397-3742 or go online. It’s free to sign up and freeze your credit. After you answer personal questions, you’ll see if your request to freeze your credit was approved immediately. You’ll also receive your PIN, so make sure you keep it in a safe place.
How Fast is your Credit Frozen?
With all three bureaus, your credit is frozen instantly if you request it online. If you request via mail (which isn’t common), they must freeze your credit within 3 business days of receiving the freeze notification.
You must receive written confirmation of the frozen credit within 5 business days of the credit bureau freezing your credit too.
How to Unfreeze your Credit
When you apply for new credit, you’ll need to unfreeze your credit. If lenders can’t access your credit report, they typically won’t approve your application.
Typically, you can request temporary lifting of the frozen credit, or you can just unfreeze it. Most people request a temporary lift when they apply for new credit and then reapply it as soon as the lender is done checking their credit.
You don’t have to unfreeze all three credit bureaus unless you’re applying for a mortgage. Most lenders check only one or two credit bureaus. Before you apply, ask them what credit bureaus they check. You can then unfreeze just those credit reports and leave the others frozen.
To unfreeze your credit, visit the same website you visited to freeze the credit and click ‘unfreeze.’ You’ll need your password or PIN to unfreeze your credit. Make sure to keep this information in a safe place because it’s quite a hassle to get around it if you lose them.
How Fast is Credit Unfrozen?
Just like when you froze your credit, the change is almost immediate if you apply for it online. If you send your request in via mail, you may have to wait up to 3 business days for your credit freeze to lift.
Documents Needed to Freeze your Credit
To freeze your credit, you’ll need access to personal information to prove that it’s you when you freeze it.
All credit bureaus ask for your name, birth date, and social security number. They’ll also ask for your address, and if you moved recently, they may also ask for your previous address.
Most credit bureaus also ask for further proof of your identity to ensure you are who you say you are including:
- Questions about your most recent tax returns, such as your adjusted gross income
- A copy of other IDs including a passport or military ID
- Questions about your bank statement or your most recent bill, such as a utility bill
When Should you Freeze your Credit?
Since it’s free, everyone should freeze their credit when they don’t need to use it. For example, if you aren’t applying for a mortgage, car loan, or credit card in the near future, freeze your credit.
This makes it much harder for hackers to get a hold of your information. You can easily unfreeze your credit when you need to, but having it frozen provides you with the necessary precautions in the meantime.
Other Ways to Protect your Credit
A security freeze is just one way to protect yourself. Other ways to protect your credit include:
Don’t share personal information
Keep all your personal information private. Don’t access personal accounts on public Wi-Fis and never share passwords with anyone.
Shred important documents
Don’t assume no one will go through your garbage – they will. Instead of just tossing important documents you no longer need, shred them so that no one can piece them together and steal your information.
Only conduct personal business in private
Don’t assume you are alone when you’re entering your secure information into an app or website. Always know your surroundings and watch out for people that might be looking over your shoulder to grab your information.
Check for credit card skimmers
Before you insert your credit card into a machine at a retailer, ATM machine, or gas station, feel for any extra pieces that may signify someone is trying to steal your information.
Pull your credit reports often
Since the pandemic, all three credit bureaus offer free weekly access to your credit reports. Pull your credit reports often (at least monthly) and make sure all information on there is legit. If you notice any accounts or activity that you didn’t initiate, report it to the credit bureaus and the police right away.
A credit freeze is free and one of the simplest ways to protect yourself. It’s not the only way to keep thieves from stealing your information, but it’s one of the first steps to take to keep your information private.