For a cost of up to $60, consumers can prevent identity thieves from opening accounts in their names by "freezing" their credit reports.
These credit freezes can be a great tool for protecting yourself against identity theft, experts say, but they're not for everyone.
Credit freezes, also known as security freezes, place a lock on access to a borrower's credit report. With a credit freeze in place, lenders and other companies cannot view the borrower's credit. As a result, freezes prevent the consumer from gaining access to new loans, such as credit cards and mortgages, but they also keep fraudsters from opening new accounts in that person's name. These freezes can subsequently be lifted temporarily or permanently by consumers, sometimes also for a price. However, in many states, you can avoid paying any fees at all by providing proof -- a police report, for example -- that you've already been a victim of fraud. (See CreditCard.com's chart.)
"I think for anyone who is extremely concerned about the prospect of identity theft, there is no better tool than a credit freeze," says Joe Ridout, consumer services manager with the nonprofit consumer rights group Consumer Action. That's especially true for the elderly, who may already have all the credit they need but still remain susceptible to fraud.
Ironically, those who sell credit freezes don't like them much. "Freezing your credit file is an extreme step that removes you from the credit marketplace," says Rod Griffin, director of public education with the credit bureau Experian. "It is still very important to understand that freezing your credit file will not prevent identity theft, although it is often misrepresented in that way," Griffin says. Freezes, for example, don't prevent fraudsters from accessing an existing card account, if they already have the necessary information. In place of credit freezes, the credit reporting industry typically promotes credit monitoring services, which bureaus and banks sell to their customers, or fraud alerts, which are available for free from the credit bureaus and do not block access to credit reports.
The basics of credit freezes
Credit freezes go further than either credit monitoring or alerts, however, by making credit reports inaccessible to lenders and others who might have an interest in viewing a consumer's credit history. Available from each of the three major credit bureaus, the credit freeze comes at a price -- anywhere from free to $20 per bureau, with the cost determined by each individual state's laws -- but will remain in place indefinitely, provided the consumer doesn't remove the freeze.
That's different from other fraud prevention tools. Critics of fraud alerts say even when they are in place, not all lenders take the step of notifying a borrower about credit inquiries. They also argue that credit monitoring -- which must be renewed every year or so -- only lets borrowers know that fraud may have taken place. But by then, it's already too late.
Consumer advocates say that credit freezes typically cost less than other options and are even free for some consumers. "A credit freeze is both cheaper and far more effective than credit monitoring," says Ridout. He says that although credit monitoring services have millions of subscribers, they remain an "unambiguous waste of money." Only a small one-time fee -- often $10 to $20 -- is required to place a credit freeze at each of the three bureaus, while credit monitoring can cost the consumer $120 or more each year, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
For many consumers, "it would be much more economical to obtain a security freeze and make a one-time payment, which would be the case for most people, and then be done with it," he says.
Credit freezes are also becoming easier to use. "We have been able to make significant improvements in the credit file freezing process since it was first instituted several years ago. In most instances, freezes can be lifted via the Internet or telephone in a matter of minutes," says Experian's Griffin. (See "The cost of a credit freeze" on this page for more information.)
So who's the best fit for a credit freeze? "The advantages of a credit freeze rise with age," says Ridout. That's because younger consumers tend to frequently apply for credit cards, mortgages and new jobs, while senior citizens have less need for credit but more reason to be cautious. "As people get older, it's been shown that the time necessary to recover from identity theft tends to go up," Stephens says. Plus, there comes a time when getting approved for more credit just isn't necessary. "At a certain point in life, you may have all the credit you need," Ridout says.
People involved in nasty divorcesmay also want to consider freezing their credit, since their spouse may have all the information (name, Social Security number, etc.) needed to open new accounts in their identity, says Stephens.
One credit freeze does not fit all
Unfortunately, the steps required to freeze credit aren't always clear. With no federal credit freeze law in place, consumers are left to navigate a patchwork of state laws. Consumer advocates acknowledge that this can present a challenge. "There really is no uniformity in terms of the costs and time frames for both placing and lifting credit freezes. You do find a tremendous difference from state to state," Stephens says. Some states don't even have credit freeze laws. According to advocacy group Consumers Union, 47 states and the District of Columbia have enacted laws requiring credit bureaus to allow credit freezes. (Credit freezes are offered voluntarily by the bureaus in the three remaining states -- Alabama, Michigan and Missouri.)
The price can also vary. The cost to put a freeze in place ranges from free (for ID theft victims or senior citizens) in some states to $20 per freeze in Delaware, while the cost of unfreezing runs from free to $18. Since it's necessary to line up freezes with all three major credit reporting bureaus -- Experian, Equifax and TransUnion -- for complete protection, the cost for a freeze needs to be multiplied by three.
Credit freezes may cause some other headaches for consumers, including:
- No guarantee of protection. Freezes don't guarantee the consumer won't be victimized by fraudsters who access existing accounts or passwords, for example. "One thing the credit freeze won't do is prevent continued activity by an identity thief on an account they've already assumed," says Consumer Action's Ridout. Additionally, other types of fraud, such as employment fraud, insurance fraud and online auction fraud, aren't prevented, Griffin explains. "None of these identity frauds involve a credit report, so would not be prevented by a credit file freeze," he says.
- Not all access is frozen. Not everyone will be blocked from viewing a frozen credit report. For example, "businesses with which you have an existing relationship can still access your credit history as part of their portfolio management programs," Griffin says.
- PIN number required. To remove the freeze on your credit, you need to remember the PIN number associated with the freeze. "When it's months or years later, the consumer might not have the PIN number with them," says J. Craig Shearman, vice president of government affairs with the National Retail Federation, which advocates for the retail industry.
- More legwork. "Unlike a fraud alert, which can be placed on all three of your credit reports with one call to any one of the three nationwide credit reporting companies, you will need to contact each separately to establish a security freeze and receive your unique PIN number," says Steve Katz, spokesman for credit bureau TransUnion.
- Difficulty opening new accounts. "A frozen credit file can create substantial inconvenience and difficulty for consumers who will be applying for credit or other services, such as cellular telephone service," says Griffin. That's because the company may have to then contact the borrower, requesting removal of the credit freeze. In some cases, frozen credit could prevent or delay you from landing a job when the employer performs a background check that includes checking your credit report.
- Long wait for credit to unfreeze. "One of the biggest problems with a credit freeze is it takes a lot longer to thaw credit than it does to freeze it," says the NRF's Shearman. That could be a problem if you need credit in a hurry, such as a store credit card for an unexpected appliance purchase. "Let's say it's August and you need a new freezer and there's meat about to spoil," Shearman says. The meat could thaw long before your credit.
Consumer advocates say that the credit reporting industry has another reason for pushing other options instead of credit freezes: money. Banks and bureaus sell credit monitoring services to their customers and thus have a vested interest in promoting them. "The superior product doesn't have a corporation behind it. And for that reason, the credit freeze gets much less attention that it deserves," says Ridout.
And that's a shame, experts say. After all, a credit freeze is a good choice for many consumers, they say, but people can't take advantage of a tool they've never heard of.