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Freezing your credit restricts who can view your credit reports—but it doesn't freeze your credit score. As creditors report information about your credit activity, your credit score can change over time.
Freezing your credit can be a good way to protect against fraud if you know that someone has stolen your personal information and you feel extreme action is needed to stop them from opening accounts in your name. However, other measures, such as a fraud alert, can usually accomplish the same goal in fewer steps. Here's what to know about how credit freezes work, the impact on your credit score and how to request a credit freeze.
What Is a Credit Freeze?
Also known as a security freeze, a credit freeze is a tool provided by the three national credit bureaus—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax—that allows you to restrict who can view your credit reports.
When you or someone else submits a credit application in your name, most lenders run a credit check to determine your eligibility for the loan or credit card. But with a credit freeze, lenders are unable to view the credit reports that you've frozen, so they are unable to complete the application.
As a result, a credit freeze is an excellent defense against identity thieves who have your personal information and may attempt to use it to open fraudulent credit accounts in your name without your permission. But it's also an extreme measure that could prevent authorized creditors from checking your credit and complicate the loan or credit card application process.
Does a Credit Freeze Affect Your Credit Score?
Your credit score and your credit report are two separate things. The credit bureaus—Experian, TransUnion and Equifax—maintain credit reports, which contain information about your credit-related activities, while credit scoring companies such as FICO® and VantageScore® use the information in your credit reports to calculate your credit scores with each bureau.
When you freeze your credit report, you block lenders from being able to access your credit information as a result of an application. However, your current lenders will continue to report and update the account information in your report, so a freeze will have no impact on your credit scores. A security freeze also doesn't stop you from using the credit accounts you currently have, and you must continue to make loan and credit card payments.
If you want to apply for new credit, you will need to "thaw" your credit reports in advance so lenders can view your credit reports to make a decision. If you know you will be applying for credit, you can request to thaw your credit report temporarily. You can also request a one-time-use PIN that you can provide to a specific lender to give them one-time access to your report.
Keep in mind that lenders are not the only ones who may access your credit report when making decisions. For example, some insurance companies, such as homeowners and auto insurance companies, may use your credit information to calculate a credit-based insurance score to determine your premiums. Companies requesting your credit report for the purpose of insurance underwriting may still be able to see your credit information even with a credit freeze in place.
Generally speaking, however, if you are thinking of applying for credit in the near future, it may be better to consider a fraud alert or security alert in lieu of freezing your credit.
Who Can View My Credit Report When It's Frozen?
When you freeze your credit reports, only the following people and organizations can view the information found in them:
- Existing creditors or debt collectors acting on their behalf
- Government agencies responding to a court order, subpoena or search warrant
- Insurance companies accessing your report for the purpose of insurance underwriting
- Anyone accessing your credit report for employment, tenant or background screening purposes
A credit freeze also won't stop you from receiving prescreened offers. This is because when a lender sends a prescreened (or preapproval) offer, it's not based on a check of your credit reports. Instead, lenders will request a list of people from the credit bureaus based on their criteria, such as a minimum credit score.
If you'd like to stop these offers, you can make a request at OptOutPrescreen.com or call 888-567-8688.
Credit Freeze vs. Fraud Alert
It's important to note that a credit freeze is different from a fraud alert. With a fraud alert, the credit reporting agencies add a note to your credit reports stating that you may be a victim of fraud and providing lenders with your contact information, so they can call and verify your identity before they proceed with a credit application.
An initial alert lasts one year but can be renewed once it expires. Alternatively, you can add an extended fraud alert, which lasts seven years, if you have a police report or another identity theft report that shows you've been a victim of identity theft.
Finally, if you're an active-duty military service member on a remote-duty assignment, you can file an active-duty fraud alert, to protect your credit report while you're away. This alert lasts for 12 months but can be renewed to match your deployment.
Fraud alerts may be preferable over security freezes for a few reasons. With a credit freeze, you have to thaw your credit report before applying for loans or credit cards so creditors can check your history. A fraud alert, on the other hand, allows creditors to access your report but asks the creditor to contact you to verify your identity when you (or anyone else) applies for a loan in your name—requiring no action on your part other than confirming your identity with the lender.
In addition, a credit freeze prevents access to your credit file indefinitely; you must remember to remove the freeze if you want to apply for credit. Fraud alerts, as noted, are temporary, with the option to extend them if necessary.
Finally, if you place a fraud alert on your credit report with one of the credit bureaus, it will be automatically added to all three of your credit reports. With credit freezes, however, you must contact each bureau separately to place a freeze. (When you remove a credit freeze or fraud alert, you must do so with each bureau.)
How to Freeze Your Credit
You'll need to contact each credit bureau individually to place a security freeze on your credit reports. You can submit your request with Experian online, by phone or by mail. You'll need to provide information about yourself, including your:
- Full name
- Date of birth
- Social Security number
- Current address
- Contact information
You may also be asked a handful of questions to verify your identity, such as information about current credit accounts, places you've lived and more.
Depending on the credit bureau, you may receive a PIN or be asked to create one, which you can use to freeze and unfreeze your credit as needed. When you're ready to thaw your Experian credit report, simply visit the Experian Security Freeze Center and provide your PIN; then you can do the same thing to refreeze it.
A Credit Freeze Won't Stop All Forms of Fraud
A credit freeze can be a great way to help prevent new-account fraud if you've repeatedly faced identity theft, such as a criminal using your personal information to open a new credit account in your name. But it won't stop all forms of identity theft.
For example, thieves may still be able to access your credit card accounts and use them without your permission. And if they have your Social Security number, they may still be able to file a fraudulent tax return or file a fraudulent health insurance claim in your name.
As such, if you think someone has stolen your personal information, it's important to be vigilant and keep track of the different areas of your life that fraudsters can attack.
Also, it's important to continue monitoring your credit while your credit reports are frozen, because while cybercriminals may not be able to open new accounts in your name, a missed payment, a high credit card balance or fraudulent use of your accounts could still damage your credit score. It's important to address potential issues as they arise to maintain good credit for the long haul.