The problem of identity theft continues to grow. Every year, people file more complaints with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) about identity theft than anything else. In recent years, more than 1 million identity theft victims report their cases to the FTC.
Much of that identity theft could be prevented if consumers would only freeze their credit files with the major credit bureaus. The three bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
It’s free for consumers nationwide to freeze their credit files. And it’s easy. It takes only about 20 minutes by phone. It can take twice as long if you do it online in part because you have to create accounts.
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 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.
TIP: Think of your six-digit PIN ahead of time. For now, TransUnion requires you to generate your own PIN. Don’t make it something like your birthdate or any part of your SSN or phone number or address.
What to know before you start freezing your files
Have all of your information written down in front of you, including your birthday and Social Security number if you’re not used to providing verbally. Yes, you can remember your birthday. But you might get flustered when asked 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 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 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.
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, if doing by phone, sometimes you need to enter the pound key (#) after your entry and sometimes you don’t. You need to listen closely.
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.
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 worry about providing personal information. Yes, you must provide your Social Security number and other information that you’re right to be protective of. But the credit bureaus already have all of this information and a whole lot more. Just make sure you’re going calling the correct phone numbers or going to the correct website.
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.
And if you’re unfreezing/thawing your files
Think about how long you want the thaw to last and write that down. If you’re applying for a credit card tomorrow, you should leave your files thawed for a few days. If you’re applying for a car loan, you should leave your files thawed for at least a week. If it’s a mortgage, it should be six to eight weeks because most lenders check your credit files immediately and again at the end of the underwriting process.
Speaking of unfreezing. 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 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 unfreeze 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 September 14, 2023, and refreeze them on September 28, 2023, it’d be: Thaw on 09/14/2023 and refreeze on 09/28/2023.
What to do to freeze or unfreeze/thaw your files
To freeze or thaw 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, which rightfully concerns many people.
Two additional upsides of freezing/thawing by phone: First, you can thaw your files more easily by phone if you’re not home. (It might be quicker with an app, but we don’t like unnecessary apps that track you and pilfer your information.) Second, if you freeze/thaw online, you have to be careful to *uncheck* any box that automatically gives them permission to send you marketing and other emails.
To freeze or unfreeze/thaw your credit files by phone
To freeze or unfreeze/thaw your credit files online
(If you’re going the online route, see screenshots of what the bureaus’ landing pages look like at the bottom of this page, so you don’t end up on a scam site.)
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.
- It does not affect your ability to get credit information from services such as Credit Karma, Credit Sesame, etc., if you have already created an account with one of them. (However, consumers should know these services often share your personal information for marketing or advertising purposes.)
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.
The landing pages for credit freezes look like what’s below in September 2023. Watch out for imposter sites. Don't just click on a search result without verifying the URL.
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.