When you freeze your credit report, it becomes inaccessible to both thieves and new lenders. That works well until you're ready to secure new credit, such as a car loan or mortgage, and the lender can't access your credit report.
But freezing your credit isn't permanent, and the credit reporting bureaus have made it easy to unfreeze your credit. Here is a look at how to unfreeze and why it's best to plan ahead before you need to do so.
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How Do Credit Freezes Work?
A credit freeze is a step you can take through the three major credit reporting bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- to limit access to your credit report. To put a freeze on all three credit reports, you need to contact each agency individually.
Thanks to a 2018 law, credit freezes, which are also known as security freezes, are free. They also don't affect your credit score.
You might want to put a freeze on your credit because of ongoing identity theft issues or data breaches, or to guard against the chance of someone accessing your report without you knowing about it. It's also a good tool to use if you're not applying for credit often, says Rod Griffin, director of public education at the credit bureau Experian. But if you are actively applying for new credit and have not been a victim of identity theft, you might not need it, he says.
It's also important to realize that credit freezes only protect you from new accounts being opened in your name. They don't protect your personal information from being stolen or safeguard you from employment fraud, tax fraud or an account takeover.
How Can You Unfreeze Your Credit?
Unfreezing your credit can be as easy as typing in a PIN on a credit reporting bureau's website or its app. You'll receive the PIN when you freeze your credit and can retrieve it if you've lost it.
Freezing and thawing your credit reports is very easy, says John Ulzheimer, a credit expert who has worked at Equifax and FICO. If you want to lift the freeze temporarily, you can set the amount of time you want your reports to be thawed before they are refrozen.
For example, Ulzheimer says it recently took him just a few minutes to unthaw all three of his credit reports on the phone while waiting to open a new account at a bank.
The three credit bureaus have similar processes for freezing and unfreezing credit. "Other than the cosmetics of their websites, the functionality is basically the same," he says.
Here is a look at how to sign up for freeze and unfreeze options at each credit reporting bureau:
Online: Create a myEquifax account, where you can check the status of your security freeze. A PIN is no longer required for online security freeze transactions.
By phone: Call the automated line at 800-349-9960. If you are temporarily lifting or permanently removing a security freeze, use the 10-digit PIN you received when the freeze was initially placed.
By mail: Download this form for instructions and the mailing address. You will need the 10-digit PIN if you are temporarily lifting or permanently removing a security freeze.
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Online: The place to start is Experian's Freeze Center, where you can start or lift a security freeze. You'll be asked for a PIN and additional information, Griffin says.
"You can even specify when you want the freeze lifted and when you want it restored," he says. "If you intend to keep the freeze, that's a great option. It makes it simple for you, and you don't have to worry about going in and doing it manually."
You also can allow just one lender to have access to your frozen credit report.
By phone: If you would prefer to lift the freeze by phone, you can call 888-EXPERIAN (888-397-3742) and provide the required information.
By mail: Write your request to:
Experian Security Freeze
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
A written request should include:
-- Your full name, including your middle initial.
-- Your Social Security number.
-- A list of your addresses for the past two years.
-- Your date of birth.
-- One copy of a government-issued identification card, such as a driver's license or state ID card.
-- A copy of a utility bill, bank or insurance statement.
Each copy needs to be legible and display your name and current mailing address. Also, be sure to send copies and retain original documents.
Online: The quickest way to freeze or unfreeze your TransUnion credit report is through the company's website or its myTransUnion: Credit Freeze mobile app, says Amy Thomann, head of consumer credit education at TransUnion. You can log in or create an account to get started.
If you plan to unfreeze your credit, you can set it up as far as 15 days before you want it to happen.
Phone or mail: You can also call 888-909-8872 or send a written request that includes your name, address and Social Security number to:
P.O. Box 160
Woodlyn, PA 19094
How Quickly Will the Thaw Take Effect?
Although some consumers are able to get the credit freeze lifted within minutes, a credit reporting bureau might need more time to process your request under certain circumstances.
Experian recommends allowing a day or two for the request to be processed, Griffin says. For example, if you forget your PIN or if the name or address you provide is not what the bureau has on file, the request might take more time.
As long as your information checks out with the credit bureau, the company is required to lift the freeze within an hour if the request is made by phone or online. The bureau has to lift the freeze within three business days after getting a request by mail.
How Long Should You Unfreeze Your Credit for?
Consumers should unfreeze their credit for only as long as they need to. This can range from a day or two to a couple weeks.
The length of time to unfreeze your credit primarily depends on the type of credit you're seeking. A credit card might take less than a day to open, after which you can freeze your credit again. If you're loan shopping, you might need more time to get competing rates from lenders, making a week a more appropriate length of time to leave your credit unfrozen.
Whatever length of unfrozen time you need, make sure it's limited. A long unfrozen period could open up the same risks that the freeze is intended to prevent.
"That defeats the purpose of the credit freeze," Ulzheimer says. "If you know you're going to apply for credit in the next week, then set your reports to refreeze in two weeks. Keep the timing tight." This limits the availability of your credit reports.
The risks associated with frequent credit unfreezing are low, unless you forget to refreeze. If you lift your credit freeze for only few days, a prospective identity thief would have a harder time causing problems, Griffin says.
You won't be able to get a credit card, mortgage, auto loan or personal loan when your credit is frozen because new lenders won't be able to access your credit reports.
"If an identity thief tries to apply for credit cards or loans in your name while your credit report is frozen, it will be inaccessible," Thomann says. "For the same reason, if your credit report is frozen and you want to apply for new credit, you'll have to remember to unfreeze your report or lenders won't be able to access it."
There are a few entities that would still have access to your credit report, whether frozen or unfrozen, according to Terry Griffin, senior vice president of marketing and global consumer services at Equifax. That includes:
-- Companies that provide you with access to your credit report or credit score or that monitor your credit report as part of a subscription service.
-- In some cases, federal, state and local government agencies and courts.
-- Companies that are checking your credit to underwrite insurance or for employment or background screening purposes.
-- Collection agencies and companies to whom you owe money.
-- Companies that are checking on the identity of consumers, possibly for investigating possible fraud.
-- Lenders that want to make preapproved offers of credit or insurance. You can opt out at OptOutPrescreen.com.
Can You Unfreeze Credit For Someone Else?
Consumers can obtain a credit freeze for people who might not be able to handle their own financial matters, such as senior citizens suffering from cognitive disabilities or a child.
For example, at TransUnion, parents and guardians can freeze -- and unfreeze -- credit for those 15 years old and younger. If you have a valid power of attorney to handle someone's financial affairs, you can call the bureau to request the freeze. Spouses can request freezes for each other, as long as authentication is set.
With Experian, Rod Griffin says consumers need to provide documentation to show they have the legal authority to get a freeze for a minor or elderly parent. If, after you've done that, you need to unfreeze the person's credit report, "we would have that documentation on file and should be able to lift that freeze with a PIN," he says.
Although Ulzheimer would like to see more consumers sign up for free credit freezes, and the often-simple ability to unfreeze them when needed, he says he's not optimistic they will. "People don't tend to care very much about their credit reports until they're forced to care about them. At the very least, the cost impediment has been removed."
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