The problem of identity theft continues to grow. In 2021, people filed more complaints with the Federal Trade Commission about identity theft than anything else. In fact, identity theft comprised 25 percent of complaints filed in 2021, hitting 1.4 million cases, double the number from 2019.
Much of that identity theft could be easily prevented if consumers would only freeze their credit files with the major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
It’s free for consumers to freeze their credit files. And it’s easy. It takes only about 20 minutes. Freezing your credit files prevents new credit cards or loans from being opened in your name. A frozen file can also prevent someone from getting your income tax return in some states or accessing your Social Security account online. Despite the ease of freezing your files and the risks of not doing it, various surveys indicate that only between 10 and 20 percent of consumers have frozen their credit files. It’s likely you wouldn’t consider leaving your home unlocked and your front door open while you’re out of state on vacation. Leaving your credit files open for identity thieves is similar.
What does it mean to freeze your files?
Anytime you apply for a new credit card or loan, the bank will check your credit score and evaluate your ability to repay the account. If you freeze your credit files, it means no bank or credit card issuer could access them. Therefore, it wouldn’t open a new account in your name because it wouldn’t be able to determine your credit score, how much you already owe and how well you repay existing debts.
So freezing your files puts a big padlock on your personal information and protects you.
In addition, many state and federal offices verify identity by generating quizzes based on personal information from your credit report, such as a past address or the name of the bank where you had a car loan. Until frozen files are thawed, no one can confirm your identity, meaning your income tax return can’t be submitted electronically in some states and a Social Security account can’t be accessed online.
What freezing doesn’t mean
Freezing your credit files does not prevent fraud involving existing accounts, which could still occur if you lose your credit or debit card.
It does not affect your ability to open a checking or savings account.
It does not directly increase or decrease your credit score.
It does not affect your ability to check your own credit report.
What are the consequences of not freezing your files?
Identity theft victims can expect to spend an average of 28 hours untangling the mess, including filing police reports, disputing charges, submitting affidavits (sworn statements) and getting credit reports corrected.
Take 20 minutes sometime in the next week to take care of yourself. Heck, maybe even put it on your calendar like any other commitment. Twenty minutes is a lot better than 28 hours.
What to do
To freeze your credit files with the three major credit bureaus, you can do it by phone or online. While I prefer to do many things in life online, I personally think it’s easier and faster to freeze your credit files by phone. There are fewer options to get confused by. You just follow the prompts. You don’t have to provide an email address or fill in your personal information online.
To freeze your credit files by phone
To freeze your credit files online
The landing pages for credit freezes look like what’s below.
What information do you need?
Your full name.
Your current address.
Your previous address if you’ve lived at your current address for less than two years.
Your Social Security number.
Your date of birth
Your cell phone number.
A six-digit PIN. Think of this ahead of time. For now, TransUnion requires you to generate your own six-digit PIN. Don’t make it something like your birth date or any part of your SSN or phone number or address.
Tips for success:
Have all of your information written down in front of you, including your Social Security number and birthday. Yes, you can remember your birthday. But you might get flustered when they ask you to quickly provide Jan. 5, 1990, as two numbers for the month, two numbers for the day and four numbers for the year. It’d be 01/05/1990.
Don’t try to multi-task when freezing your files. You should just sit down and focus for a few minutes and you’ll breeze through it. But you have to pay attention. For example, sometimes you need to enter the pound key (#) after your entry and sometimes you don’t. You need to listen closely.
Don’t get confused and accidentally choose a lock or a fraud alert. You want a freeze. A lock may cost money and isn’t regulated. Freezes by law are free and must comply with federal law.
Don’t have your phone on speaker. The services operate on voice recognition software. The credit bureaus’ computers often pick up background noise and may misinterpret sounds or may hang up on you. It’s happened to my relatives.
If freezing your files by phone, make sure you’re in a private place, and strongly consider turning off Alexa or any other devices that listen to your voice.
Don’t buy identity theft monitoring or any other service. You don’t need a credit or debit card to freeze or thaw your file. If you get asked to enter payment information, you’ve gone down the wrong road.
When asked to enter a date for the freeze to take effect, don’t enter today’s date. Generally, it won’t work unless you provide a date of tomorrow or later. If you make the request by phone or online, the credit bureau by law must freeze your file within one business day.
Make sure you keep your records of your PINs/passwords in a secure place, such as your file cabinet or wherever you keep your Social Security card, birth certificate, etc. It can be a pain to try to thaw your files if you can’t find your PIN.
Speaking of thawing. Yes, you can thaw all three of your files in about 15 minutes if you have all of your information. And yes, the thaw will kick in in just a few minutes. But you still shouldn’t wait until the last minute if you can avoid it. If you’re planning to rent a home and a credit check is required, or looking to buy a car and apply for a loan later this week, then thaw your files today and leave them unfrozen for a week or two.
Before calling to thaw your files, write out your information just like you did to freeze them. Also, write out the date you want your files to thaw and when you want the freeze to resume. So if you wanted to thaw them on March 14, 2023, and refreeze them on March 28, 2023, it’d be: Thaw on 03/14/2022 and refreeze on 03/28/2022.
Consumer Watchdog, PIRG
Teresa directs the Consumer Watchdog office, which looks out for consumers’ health, safety and financial security. Previously, she worked as a journalist covering consumer issues and personal finance for two decades for Ohio’s largest daily newspaper. She received dozens of state and national journalism awards, including Best Columnist in Ohio, a National Headliner Award for coverage of the 2008-09 financial crisis, and a journalism public service award for exposing improper billing practices by Verizon that affected 15 million customers nationwide. Teresa and her husband live in Greater Cleveland and have two sons. She enjoys biking, house projects and music, and serves on her church missions team and stewardship board.