In 2022, the Federal Trade Commission received more than one million reports of identity theft. Once thieves have your personal information, they can open new accounts in your name, run up large balances and leave you holding the bag. One way to stop fraudsters in their tracks is to freeze your credit, which prevents creditors from accessing your financial data. But what happens if you initiate a freeze and want to apply for a mortgage, credit card or personal loan? Learn how to unfreeze your credit long enough to submit a new credit application.
What Is a Credit Freeze?
When you apply for credit, the lender pulls your credit file and uses it to determine if you qualify for an account. A credit freeze is a security block that prevents creditors from accessing your reports and scores. If a thief manages to steal your Social Security number, driver’s license number or other personal information, a freeze prevents them from opening new accounts in your name. In other words, a credit freeze protects you against some of the negative effects of identity theft.
Removing a Freeze vs. ‘Thawing’ a Freeze
Before you learn how to remove a security freeze from your credit accounts, it’s important to understand the difference between thawing a freeze and removing it permanently. Thawing removes the freeze for a set length of time and then restores it. For example, if you plan to shop for a new car, you can thaw a freeze for two weeks. This allows you to visit several auto dealers and get approved for a loan. Once the two-week period ends, the freeze goes back into effect.
When you remove a freeze, you get rid of it indefinitely. You can always freeze your credit again at some point in the future, but until you do that, thieves may be able to use your personal information to sign up for new lines of credit in your name.
How to Unfreeze Your Credit at Each of the Three Major Credit Bureaus
Equifax, Experian and TransUnion are the “big three” credit reporting agencies (credit bureaus) in the United States. When a lender pulls your credit score, they get a report from at least one of these bureaus. Some lenders, such as mortgage companies, obtain credit history reports from all three to ensure you meet their borrowing guidelines. Here’s how to unfreeze your credit with each of these agencies.
To unfreeze your Equifax report, log in to your online account and follow the on-screen prompts. You can also call (888) 298-0045 with a remove a freeze request. Be prepared to verify your identity if you opt for the phone method.
Follow these steps to stop your Experian security freeze:
- Log in to your Experian account.
- Go to the Help Center.
- Click the toggle button until it’s on “Unfrozen.”
To unfreeze your TransUnion file, log in to your TransUnion account and follow the on-screen prompts.
Additional Tips for Protecting Your Identity
Freezing your credit is just one way to protect your personal information. Here are some additional tips to help you guard against potential data breaches.
- Shred documents with your Social Security number, bank account numbers and other personal information on them.
- Avoid carrying your Social Security card in your wallet. Memorize the number and keep the physical card at home in a safe or lockbox.
- Check your mail regularly. If you let mail build up in your box, it’s easier for thieves to steal bank statements, credit information and other personal documents. Use a locking mailbox to prevent thieves from stealing your mail.
- Use strong passwords for your online accounts. This helps prevent unauthorized access to your personal data.
- Utilize credit monitoring services. You can get a free copy of your Equifax, Experian and TransUnion reports once per year at AnnualCreditReport.com. Check each report carefully for accounts you don’t recognize and other signs of identity theft.
- Pay close attention to your child’s credit history. Children are easily targeted because they don’t get regular credit checks. Scammers use this information to open a new credit card, pay utility bills, or pay rent.
- Don’t share your Social Security number or any other personal information with anyone who calls you. It’s easy for thieves to spoof telephone numbers and use them to commit identity theft.
- Report any suspicious activity immediately at ReportFraud.ftc.gov.
How to Deal With Identity Theft
Identity thieves are constantly working to improve their methods, so it’s important to know how to deal with identity theft if it happens to you. Generally, you’re not required to file a police report, but it’s helpful to do so. If you have to file a dispute with one of the credit bureaus, a police report helps verify that your claims have merit. You should also file an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission. Call (877) 438-4338 or fill out the online form to let the FTC know what happened.
If you know where the fraud occurred, contact the company and make a report. For example, if someone opens a credit card at a local bank, call the bank and ask to talk to someone in the fraud department. While you’re on the phone, ask them to close the fraudulent account or at least freeze it so the thief can’t make any charges.
Next, place a fraud alert on your Equifax, Experian and TransUnion files. A fraud alert lets creditors know that you’re a victim of identity theft. When a creditor sees the alert, they should take additional steps to verify your identity before issuing any accounts in your name. Finally, order copies of your credit reports. Look through them carefully to determine if there are any other fraudulent accounts or signs of identity theft.
Unfortunately, identity theft is all too common and affects thousands of people each year. Freezing your credit provides an extra barrier between you and a scammer, preventing anyone from opening a new credit account in your name. When it comes time to apply for a personal finance account like a mortgage or new credit card, you can either thaw your account for a short period of time or unfreeze it altogether.
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