What Is a Credit Freeze? Should I Freeze My Credit?
Wondering if you should freeze your credit and whether it’s worth it or not? Here is why you should freeze your credit and its benefits.
By Mike Azzara | American Express Credit Intel Freelance Contributor
6 Min Read | November 06, 2019 in Credit Score
Many consumer advocates say you should freeze your credit because it’s the best protection against identity theft.
Credit freezes can be simple and easy to do if you keep good password records, but a major hassle if you don’t.
Research shows at least one in five Americans have frozen their credit—but many others are confused about credit freezes or haven’t ever heard of them.
Every month, on average, thousands of Americans ask Google, “Should I freeze my credit?” Thousands more wonder, “What is a credit freeze?” I’m not one of them. My credit has been frozen solid since October 2017, roughly six weeks after the Equifax data breach that compelled nearly one of every five Americans to freeze their credit.1
What happens when you freeze your credit is simple: no one can access your credit report, including you, until you unfreeze it. More specifically, a “frozen” credit reporting agency is barred from releasing your credit report to anyone except your existing creditors or a government agency with a court order, a subpoena, or a search warrant, according to the Federal Trade Commission’s (FTC’s) Credit Freeze FAQ.2
I had acted relatively quickly after the breach to freeze my credit, following a flurry of research that taught me the benefits of a credit freeze, plus:
- The main downsides to freezing credit,
- That freezing credit wouldn’t hurt my credit score, and
- Best of all, credit freezes are free—by law, as of September 2018,3 though not all online sources have caught up with this fact. (My freezes were also free, because the big three credit bureaus offered them free following the headline-making breach.)
Banks, credit card companies, employers, landlords, and others typically require credit reports before opening a new account, making a job offer, renting out an apartment, etc. So, many consumer advocates say a credit freeze—which credit bureaus call a “security freeze”—is the most effective way to protect yourself against identity thieves taking out a loan or getting a new credit card in your name. If they do, you might become liable or end up spending a large amount of time proving it wasn’t really you.
Finding the survey by Fundera/Wakefield Research stating that nearly one in five people froze their credit really floored me. In the two years since I froze my credit, I had yet to run into anyone else who had answered “yes” to the “Should I freeze my credit?” question. So, for me, that one in five Americans with frozen credit didn’t sound possible.
So, I decided to do my own informal survey. I sent 160 emails to a selection of friends and LinkedIn connections, asking “Have you ever frozen or locked your credit?” and a handful of follow-up questions about why or why not, and their experience if they had. I received 59 responses.
I was wrong—my results corroborated the Fundera-Wakefield finding. And floored me for a second time. The detailed responses, you see, exposed that so many people still are terribly confused about credit freezes. In brief:
- 18 people (31 percent) froze their credit—so my associates froze at a higher rate (nearly one in three) than the original survey’s one in five.
- But 41 (69 percent) did not, of which 13 (22 percent) had never even encountered the concept of a credit freeze, much less asked whether or not they should freeze their own credit!
- Another 13 of the non-freezers used some form of credit monitoring, including credit locks.
- 5 of my respondents were victims of identity theft.
- 9 people (15 percent) made clear in written comments that they were confused about what a credit freeze is, its purpose, and how it differs from the various forms of credit monitoring, alerts, and locks.
My survey results also agreed with consumer advocates who say that preventing identity theft is more than worth the hassle involved in freezing your credit. Two of the identity theft victims in my survey told stories in which fraudsters put a hold on their U.S. Postal mail so that they could order and intercept credit cards for new accounts in the person’s name. In another case, a fraudster submitted a tax return requesting a large refund in my friend’s name, and only by sheer luck—he decided to file his real return early that year, leaving the IRS with two conflicting documents—did he avoid years of hassle and potential criminal charges.
As long as you keep careful, secure records of your passwords and PINs, the downsides of freezing your credit are, essentially, nuisance-level. What had shocked me in my survey results was that so many people incorrectly thought that a credit freeze would somehow make it difficult for them to use their own existing accounts, such as their credit cards! Not true. Perhaps it should be called a “new credit freeze” because by closing off access to your credit report, credit freezes effectively prevent new accounts from being created. Your existing accounts are unprotected.
But that does lead to the first of four downsides:
- A credit freeze doesn’t help protect against fraud aimed at your existing accounts. You still need to be vigilant in checking those accounts to make sure you made all the transactions.
- Some people consider it a hassle, because you have to contact each of the three major credit bureaus individually. And even if you freeze each of the big three, there are many small and specialized credit bureaus—it was through one of these that an identity theft was perpetrated against one of my survey respondents.
- Like everything else in life, a credit freeze offers no 100 percent guarantee.
- You’ll need to temporarily unfreeze if you want to get a new credit card, mortgage or, like me, lease a car. This is where the “careful, secure password and PIN records” come in handy. I temporarily unfroze my credit twice, each time in a single-digit number of minutes, whereas many of my respondents spent hours or days on this task. (For more detailed information, see “How to Unfreeze Credit Once Frozen.”)
For me, freezing my credit was a no-brainer. I sleep better at night. But you may choose differently, depending on your own beliefs, personality, and habits. If you do choose to pursue a credit freeze, see my article, “How to Freeze Your Credit at all Three Bureaus—For Free.”