With so many data breaches making the news over the last few years, you may be concerned that your personal data has been compromised, giving identity thieves easy access to your sensitive information and credit.

Perhaps you have been stung by someone applying for a credit card or other account in your name in an unauthorized manner. This is why some people feel the need to freeze their credit reports. A credit freeze protects your personal data by making it inaccessible to anyone without your consent.

However, a credit freeze is not permanent, and you can lift a credit freeze just as easily as you can request one. Let’s take a look at what a credit freeze is and how to lift one.

What is a credit freeze?

A credit freeze, or security freeze, allows you to block access to your credit so that no one can open accounts in your name. This is done free of charge, based on federal law after you put in a request with the three credit bureaus. It does not affect your credit score.

Since creditors will typically want to look at your credit report before granting you credit, identity thieves cannot open accounts in your name if they try to do so while you have a credit freeze in place. In case a creditor wants to review your credit, it will be notified that your credit is frozen. It’s best to put in a credit freeze request with all three credit bureaus, the California attorney general advises, since lenders will check your credit with different credit bureaus.

When does placing a credit freeze make sense?

If you believe your personal information has been compromised or you have been a victim of identity theft, it is a great idea to request a credit freeze. Alternatively, if you are not actively using credit or looking for a loan, for example, it may also be wise to freeze your credit. An extra level of protection can never hurt, however, don’t let a false sense of security get the best of you.

It is important to continue to check any existing credit accounts monthly to ensure your statements are accurate. If you receive an unexplained bill or collection notice in the mail in your name, it’s worth considering taking action to protect your credit.

It is also important to note, your insurance rate could increase if you live in a state that allows insurance companies to use credit-based insurance scores to set rates. If an insurer can’t access your frozen file, you may not get a discounted rate a good score would typically entitle you to.

How to put in a credit freeze

You can request a credit freeze through Equifax, TransUnion and Experian either online, by phone or in written communication. Be prepared with your personal information, such as your Social Security number and address. The credit bureau will provide you with a personal identification number or password for this transaction. While requesting a freeze either online or over the phone should go into effect in as little as an hour, it can take three days after a credit bureau receives your written communication for it to be done.

How to freeze your credit at all 3 bureaus

Start by contacting each of the three major credit bureaus—Equifax, TransUnion and Experian—to freeze your credit. If you don’t want to complete your credit freeze request over the phone, you have the option to request a freeze online.

  • Equifax: Call (800) 349-9960 or request a credit freeze online.
  • TransUnion: Call (888) 909-8872 or request a credit freeze online.
  • Experian: Call (888) 397-3742 or request a credit freeze online.

How to lift a credit freeze

The process for lifting a credit freeze is similar to requesting one in the first place. You will need to contact Equifax, TransUnion and Experian. Be prepared with the PIN each bureau provided you at the time you initiated the freeze. If you lift the credit freeze online or by phone, it should be done in an hour or so. If you go through the mail, it will take three days after they receive your communication for the credit freeze to be lifted.

If you know which bureau a prospective lender or employer will choose to look up your credit, you can lift your credit freeze just at that particular one. Otherwise, you will have to go through the process with all three of them.

Additionally, you could offer one-time credit access to a particular entity—for instance, if you want a landlord to approve your tenancy. Or, you could lift the freeze for a specific time frame, which may be a better option if you are shopping for a loan with multiple lenders.

Reasons to lift a credit freeze

What if you are looking to take out a new line of credit, maybe applying for a no-annual-fee credit card or a mortgage, after you put in a credit freeze? You will have to lift the credit freeze temporarily to enable lenders access to your credit report.

If you are applying for a job and an employer needs to do a credit check, or if you are looking to rent a house and a landlord wants to check your credit, you could also temporarily unfreeze your credit for such purposes.

Even with a credit freeze, some entities will still have access to your credit report. For instance, your existing creditors or collection agencies representing them will be able to access it. Other lenders would also be able to access it to make preapproved offers of credit.

Some government agencies will be granted access to your credit report for purposes related to child support payments or taxes. A court order, subpoena, search warrant or administrative order would also allow some agencies to see your credit report.

Difference between a credit freeze and a credit lock

A credit freeze is different from a credit lock or fraud alert. A credit lock is a paid service provided by the credit bureaus that enables you to lock your own credit. A fraud alert warns lenders that they should verify your identity before extending credit since you suspect that your identity has been compromised. They will be able to access your credit report after confirming your identity with you. While this will prevent someone from opening a new account in your name, you will still have to monitor your existing accounts to make sure there are no spurious charges.

The bottom line

Depending on how you chose to execute a credit freeze, once it is in place, it secures your credit until you lift the freeze. This process can protect you from fraudulent credit applications, and the process to unfreeze your credit account is fairly quick when you need to apply for credit or allow an outside party access to your credit report.