Taking just a few minutes to freeze your credit can protect you from identity theft for years to come.

By Brandi Broxson and Lauren Phillips
May 12, 2020
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It’s come to this: Since 2013, even trusted companies such as Target, Equifax, and Capital One have announced massive data breaches, in which hackers gained access to the sensitive personal info of up to 147 million Americans. If that makes you worried (and rightfully so) about identity theft, experts say learning how to freeze your credit is your best option. (Consider establishing a credit freeze at the top of the list of ways to prevent identity theft.)

“It helps prevent credit cards, loans, and services like cellphones from being approved in your name without your consent,” says Eva Velasquez, president and CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center. In fact, to help deter identity theft, Congress passed a law in 2018 that makes a credit freeze free for you and your kids. (Since children under 16 are prime targets for identity theft—there were 1 million cases in 2019—experts urge you to freeze their credit.)

How to freeze credit

To place a credit freeze, call the three reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion) or visit their websites. You’ll need to provide documents, such as your driver’s license and social security card, to verify your identity.

The process is easy, but the downside is that you have to “thaw” the freeze anytime you need a credit check, like when you buy a car, apply for a loan, or sign a lease. When you freeze your credit, save your PIN, which is required to thaw (and then reinstate) the credit freeze. After the request, it takes up to two hours for the thaw to go into effect, and you can request a temporary thaw for a set period of time or a permanent one.

Freezing your credit is a simple way to guard yourself against identity fraud, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right for everyone: If you regularly apply for loans, change jobs frequently, or otherwise frequently have credit checks run on yourself, you’d have to lift your credit freeze each time you apply. If you’re one of the rare few in that position, you may be better off setting thorough fraud alerts or signing up for a credit monitoring service, rather than repeatedly lifting your credit freeze temporarily.

Learning how to freeze your credit may not be top-of-mind these days, particularly if you’ve never paid much attention to your credit score or credit reports, but identity theft is nothing to mess around with. It can take endless phone calls, emails, and more to resolve. If left unresolved, it can hurt your credit score and make it more difficult, if not impossible, to get favorable interest rates on loans. Like learning how to get out of credit card debt, learning how to freeze your credit can pay off—literally—later. If you’re concerned about identity theft or have been affected by a data breach, taking a few minutes to freeze your credit now can save you hours (and tons of stress) later.