Identity Theft: Freezing Your Credit
Note: This page applies exclusively to United States residents. Some of these agencies - like Equifax - do operate globablly, therefore you may be able to freeze your credit even if you live outside the US. However, I cannot guarantee that it is possible or free. Please contact the consumer credit reporting agencies in your country for additional information.
What is a Credit Freeze?
A credit freeze is a poorly-named security feature offered by consumer credit scoring agencies that prevents anyone except you from opening new accounts in your name. Credit freezes are poorly named because they do not stop your credit score from changing - it will still improve as you do positive things and fall as you do negative things - and because you will still have the access required to unfreeze your credit and open new accounts. Credit freezes will only stop unauthorized accounts from being opened without your knowledge or consent.
Why do I Need a Credit Freeze?
Credit freezes are free for all American citizens by federal law. A credit freeze will stop a criminal who steals your identifying information from being able to open new accounts in your name, such as store credit cards and loans. According to the Bureau of Justice, over 2/3 of identity theft victims lost more than $10,000 and had to spend hundreds of hours proving to the bank and police that the accounts were fraudulent. Identity theft isn’t always about draining your existing bank account, it’s often about opening new accounts to spend money that the criminal never intends to pay back but the bank expects you to be responsible for. Identity theft is an extremely long, complicated, frustrating, and exhausting experiences that can take months or even years to fix - if it ever gets fixed at all.
In 2017, consumer credit scoring agency Equifax suffered a data breach that affected nearly half of all Americans. Additionally, many of us have shared personal information like birthdays and past addresses in ways that have ultimately found their way onto people search websites like Spokeo and Axciom. In other words: if you have an internet connection, it’s highly likely that a criminal already has all the information about you they need to open a fraudulent account in your name. This is why every American reading this needs to freeze their credit.
How do I Freeze my Credit?
Freezing your credit must be done individually with each credit union: Equifax, Experian, TransUnion. With Equifax and TransUnion, you will be required to create an account from which you will be able to unfreeze your credit as needed. Experian will send you a PIN in the mail that you must go online and provide in order to unfreeze your credit. Keep this PIN in a safe place. Credit can be unfrozen temporarily, and can be done at one or all agencies (but must be done individually with each agency). Note: There are other smaller credit and specialty agencies that accept account freezes. Unfortunately it would be nearly impossible for me to list them all here and keep up with new ones and how to apply freezes. I encourage you to do your own research and contact any company you think may have data about you to ask what their policies are regarding freezes.
Unfortunately, some people have discovered that a freeze can be circumvented with enough cleverly-gathered information, so make sure to also place a fraud alert. A fraud alert is like two-factor authentication for your credit; the agency being queried will call you and ask a few questions to verify that it is you authorizing the account (so be sure to provide a valid phone number during signup). While freezes last indefinitely, fraud alerts need to be placed once every year. I recommend setting a reminder so you don’t forget to renew it each year. Fortunately they only need to be placed with one agency, and the alert will be passed around to the others.
If you have children - even if they are minors - be sure to freeze their credit as well. Identity theft of minors is a lucrative and growing area of cybercrime because most children do not have any negative marks (except for not having any credit) and it can potentially take years for anyone to notice the crime has even occurred.
Once you have frozen your credit, be sure to request and examine a credit report from each agency regularly to check for any errors. In the US you can do this for free once per week at Annual Credit Report.com (this will give you the full report, but not the score, no account is required). I have found that due to my increased privacy lifestyle, I am sometimes forced to submit additional verification paperwork via “snail mail.” Sometimes simply turning off my VPN will be enough to let me do the entire process digitally. Regardless, in the past the conventional wisdom was to request each report once per year, staggering them every four months. This was because up until 2023, these reports were only available for free once per year. Since then, each credit agency has committed to providing them weekly. How often you should check them is up to you, though I would recommend at least once every four months as before.