More than 13 million consumers are victims of identity theft each year, and millions more experience phishing attempts and other types of financial fraud. If you are among them — or are worried you may be next — you may have thought about blocking access to your credit reports completely. That’s essentially what a credit freeze does, and there are times when it makes sense to take that step. Here are five of them:
1. You Can’t Stop a Scammer
If your identity is being used to get credit in your name and your efforts to stop it (for example, with a fraud alert) have failed, you may want to consider a security freeze. “We typically recommend placing a freeze in circumstances when the victim has severe identity theft or multiple forms of it,” says Brett Montgomery, fraud operations manager for CyberScout. In less severe cases, a fraud alert, which tells companies accessing your credit to verify your identity, is often recommended.
2. Your Ex Can’t Be Trusted
Whether you’ve escaped an abusive relationship or you worry that your ex may try to use your good credit to get more credit (or to get back at you), a credit freeze may help protect your information. “Freezing the file may help prevent attempts at credit fraud by a vindictive spouse,” Rod Griffin, director of public education for Experian. Unfortunately, victims of domestic violence aren’t always ensured a free credit freeze, though New York citizens can get one as long as they can provide an order of protection, a domestic violence incident report, a police report or a signed affidavit from a service provider. If you are not entitled to a security freeze at no charge, you’ll have to weigh the cost against the peace of mind it may bring you (and your ability to pay to place or lift the freeze as needed).
3. Your Kid Is a Target
I’ve written before about the fact that my teenage daughter has had her personal information, including her Social Security number, compromised twice already. If you’re in the same boat and your child’s information has been compromised, you may wonder whether you should lock down your kid’s credit. Maybe. But before you do, you may want to check whether they have a credit file. If there’s no file, there is nothing to freeze. (In some situations, you can create a report to freeze, says Griffin, but he’s not sure that’s always the best option.)
4. You’re Done With Credit
If you are truly, absolutely done with credit, freezing your credit file may be an option. “We would also recommend a freeze to someone of an older age that does not need credit or has no intentions in establishing credit anymore because they are financially set in life,” says Montgomery. Just keep in mind that your credit information is used for more than just loans. A credit check may be required to get utility or cell phone service, for example, or if you shop for cheaper auto or homeowner insurance. Each time that happens you’ll need to lift the freeze, and sometimes that means lifting it with all three credit reporting agencies.
5. You’re Leaving the Country for an Extended Time
Planning a trip around the world? Retiring in a cheaper locale overseas? You may want to consider freezing your file so you don’t have to worry about the risk of identity theft while you are away from the U.S. A cheaper option, though not quite as secure, would be to place a fraud alert instead. (Note that servicemembers may place a free active duty alert on their credit files when they deploy. It will last for one year.)
Before You Freeze
Here are some important things to know about credit freezes:
- When you place a freeze, you will get a personal identification number (PIN) you must use to lift the freeze when you want to shop for a loan or give a company access to your file. If you place one with each of the three different bureaus you will have three PINs to remember.
- You will generally have to pay a fee to initiate a freeze, and pay a fee each time you want to lift it unless you qualify for a free freeze. You typically must be a victim of identity theft (and have proof with a police report or something similar) or be over a certain age (for example, over age 65) to qualify for this service at no charge. Consumer’s Union publishes a list of state credit freeze laws.
- Freezing your credit reports does not prevent all access to your information. “You can access your own file through AnnualCreditReport.com and you can monitor your own credit scores,” says Griffin. In addition, your current creditors and companies with which you have a current relationship may still access your credit. A freeze doesn’t prevent a credit score from being calculated, but it will prevent a company you don’t already have a relationship with from obtaining your credit scores.
- Use the following links to place one: Equifax.com, Experian.com; and TransUnion.com.
Whether or not you decide to lock down your credit information, getting your free credit reports each year and then monitoring your credit scores on a regular basis (which you can do for free every month with Credit.com’s free credit report summary) can help you spot fraud faster, and hopefully stop the perpetrator before too much damage is done.