Credit file security freeze

by Karl
Updated: November 5, 2018

A credit file security freeze prevents credit checks and should help protect you against fraud

Nowadays we are all at so much risk from fraud that, unless actively applying for credit, it makes no sense to leave our credit files open.

The main type of fraud that a credit file security freeze should protect against is the opening of lines of credit, e.g. a fraudsters obtaining credit cards in your name.

But it should protect against anything requiring a credit check...

Freeze

When a security freeze is in place, a credit check will not return a usable result (it may or may not explicitly state that the credit file is frozen) and any application dependent on that credit check should be denied.

It was previously the case that changing the freeze status (freeze, unfreeze, lift) required a fee (usually $10) in most states (somewhat surprisingly, this is subject to state law). It also used to be the case that you’d have to write a letter and include various proofs of your identity. Obviously, not a quick process + unbelievably annoying.

Fortunately,” the credit bureaus have demonstrated such an appalling lack of care - culminating in the Equifax data breach of mid-2017 - that consumer outrage, now supported by federal law, has required them to update their practices.

The new law requires the security freeze to be provided free of charge and in reasonable time.

Consumer demand and bad PR has resulted in better user interaction although I have experienced inconsistent behavior.

My approach: Try the website first and if it’s too frustrating (or doesn’t work properly) try the phone.

Unfreeze vs temporary lift

Unfreeze is a permanent change of credit file status to open. I can see no reason these days to do this.

When I need to apply for something that involves a credit check I request a temporary lift. This opens the credit file for a specified window of time and then freezes it again automatically.

It’s always worth asking which credit bureau will be used to try to save lifting all of them but often this is not something anyone can tell you with any certainty.

A temporary lift may still attract a fee (usually $10) but my approach has been (successfully): Try the website first and if it requires a fee try the phone.

Details

The exact procedure for freezing and unfreezing a credit file at each of the major bureaus is constantly being updated.

At the time of writing I find it to be the best it’s ever been. This is not to say it’s particularly clear or easy, but the URLs seem to be stable and the systems seems to be working:

Credit lock

Note that “freeze” is a legally defined term.

Additional proprietary services may be offered under the term “Lock.” which could mean anything and usually attracts a fee.

This almost caught me out recently: I logged into my account to be greeted with “Your account is not locked!” and it was only when I got to the pricing page I realized what was going on.

More info

The law: S.2155 at congress.gov - see TITLE III, SEC. 301. “PROTECTING CONSUMERS’ CREDIT” (p31).

Consumer Report Security Freeze State Laws at ncsl.org.

“Credit Freeze FAQs” at consumer.ftc.gov.

annualcreditreport.com is the only official site explicitly directed by Federal law to provide your credit reports to you for free.

... but it’s still a shambles

“Equifax Data Breach, One Year Later: Obvious Errors and No Real Changes, New Report Says” at fortune.com.*
* (Warning: Loud video autoplays).

“Equifax Extends Free Credit Monitoring -- But Outsources It To Experian” at finance.yahoo.com.

“Experian security flaw just exposed credit freeze PINs” at finance.yahoo.com.

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