Following last year’s enormous Equifax data breach that compromised the personal information of 143 million Americans, consumers were left wondering how to protect themselves from fraud and identity theft. One solution is credit freezes, which prevent thieves from using your credit to open fraudulent accounts in your name.
But freezing your credit with all three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and Transunion – can be expensive. Depending on your state of residence, credit freezes with each credit bureau could cost up to $10, with additional fees for “thawing” or unfreezing your credit.
Luckily, the federal government has made credit freezes free for everyone, effective later this year. Here’s what you need to know.
How Credit Freezes Work
When you freeze your credit report, creditors, lenders, and other organizations are blocked from accessing your credit information. Creditors won’t approve financial applications if they can’t pull your credit, and thieves will be unable to open loans or credit cards using your identity.
Even when your credit is frozen, you will still be able to pull your own credit report. Depending on the state, your existing creditors should still be able to access your information as well.
If you don’t plan on applying for credit anytime soon, freezing your credit is a good way to proactively guard against identity theft. You will need to request a credit freeze with all three credit bureaus for the freeze to be completely effective; you can apply for a freeze by mail, phone, or on each credit bureau’s website.
When you do apply for a loan or credit card, you will have to contact the credit bureau to unfreeze your credit or allow temporary access.
The Cost of Freezes
Until now, freezing your credit report with each credit bureau could get expensive. Depending on your state of residence, a credit freeze could cost as much as $10 a pop with each credit bureau, with additional charges in the event you need to “thaw” or unfreeze your credit.
Fees are waived for proven victims of identity theft, but in those scenarios, damage has already been done to the individual’s credit. Equifax did make credit freezes free following the data breach, but consumers were still on the hook with Transunion and Experian.
Luckily, recent federal legislation is making credit freezes free. Earlier this year, Congress passed the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, which President Trump signed into law on May 24th. Among other things, the legislation makes credit freezes free for all consumers with all three credit bureaus. Unfreezing credit reports, temporarily or permanently, will also be free of charge. These changes are expected to go into effect in September this year.
If you lived in a state where you’d be charged to freeze your credit, this is your opportunity to do so completely free.
Credit Freezes Aren’t Foolproof
Remember, credit freezes aren’t foolproof. If a thief has gotten ahold of your bank account information or credit card number, credit freezes can’t help you dispute charges or recover stolen money. And, when you’re ready to apply for credit, you’ll have to go through the process of temporarily unfreezing your credit.
If you don’t want to go that route, credit monitoring is another option. Credit and identity theft monitoring services will watch your credit report for changes, and notify you whenever a new account lands on your report. That way, you can catch signs of identity theft as soon as they happen, and start disputing false information immediately.