If you're dealing with the possibility of identity theft, a security freeze on your credit report is a key step in preventing criminals from having further access to your personal and financial information. A security freeze restricts access to your credit report, making it all but impossible for someone to open up new fraudulent accounts in your name. It may also delay or prohibit the timely approval of any subsequent requests or applications you initiate, so proceed with caution.
What to Do When You Think Your Identity Has Been Stolen
If you believe your identity has been stolen, there are some important steps you can take to stop further damage to your credit score. Start with the following checklist.
Don't make emotional decisions. Being a victim of identity theft is an alarming experience, but don't let it put you into a panic. Take a few deep breaths and remind yourself there are steps you can take to regain control of the situation.
Place an initial fraud alert on your credit report. Contact all three credit reporting agencies and place a fraud alert on your account. This requires creditors to obtain proof of identity before issuing credit to anyone using your name. (If your wallet and ID were stolen, you may want to require a password the thieves have no access to.) It remains in effect for 90 days.
Check your credit card statements. If you see any suspicious activity or fraudulent charges, work with your credit card company to get the transactions reversed.
Obtain a copy of your credit report. Victims of identity theft are entitled to a completely free copy of their credit report from each credit reporting agency once they place a fraud alert on their accounts. Look for any changes in your personal information, such as your name, address, date of birth or current employer. Keep an eye out for any accounts you didn't open, inquiries from companies you never contacted or debts you can't explain.
Get in touch with financial institutions. Contact any lenders, banks and other financial institutions that you have dealings with and explain your situation. Request to close any accounts that have been compromised and open new ones with secure passwords and a personal identification number (PIN).
File an identity theft report with local law enforcement. First file an identity theft affidavit with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC). Next, file a police report. Keep copies of both of these documents and use them as proof of the theft.
Work with the three major credit reporting agencies. In addition to placing a security freeze on your credit account (more on that process below), work with the three credit agencies to remove any incorrect activity from your credit report by sending a dispute letter to the credit reporting agency. They have 30 days to investigate.
Sign up for credit alerts. Stay on top of your credit account in real-time, by signing up for a credit monitoring service or simply opting in to receive credit alerts via text or email. These alerts can warn you of fraudulent transactions quickly, maybe even before they've had a chance to post to your account.
Contact stores and online vendors if necessary. If someone is running up purchases online or at different stores, call each one and explain that you are a victim of fraud. Once a store or online dealer has classified the charges as fraudulent, it will stop billing you. Ask for a letter confirming the credit card fraud and keep it handy. If you are applying for a loan or refinance, the underwriter may ask to have a lender's representative involve you in a three-way call with the store to verify that the unpaid late charges were indeed fraudulent.
Follow up over the next year. Periodically check on your credit report (you can obtain one free copy from each credit reporting agency once a year, so you can stagger these so you review one every four months), personal bills and credit card statements to ensure that no new fraudulent activity appears. Keeping close tabs on your credit report will help prevent identity thieves from mucking up your credit again.
How to Freeze Your Credit Report with the Three Major Reporting Agencies
If you want to protect your credit from fraud or identity theft, you'll need to place a temporary freeze on your credit with all three of the major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. Here's the process for contacting each credit agency individually to protect your credit report.
Experian makes it easy to request a security freeze by going through their online questionnaire. Simply choose your method, either online or via mail, and fill out the personal information to prove your identity. Likewise, you can submit a mail-in request electronically using their online upload method.
You can select your own PIN, or have them create one for you. You will need this when you put in a request to have the security freeze lifted, so make sure you record this and keep it in a safe place. When going through the credit security freeze with Experian, keep these various forms of personal identification handy:
- Full name, including middle name and generation (such as JR, SR, II, III)
- State-issued ID or driver's license
- Current physical address and addresses for the past two years
- Social Security Number
- One copy of a utility bill, bank or insurance statement
- Payment (depending on your state's laws)
- Date of birth
Credit freezes used to have fees attached, but as of 2018, all credit freeze requests are free of charge. One thing to note is that you should always make copies of your security freeze documents and send those to Experian. Keep the originals for your records.
When requesting a security freeze with Equifax you can do so through one of three ways: using its secure website, calling its automated phone service at 1-800-525-6285 or putting your request in the mail. Always make copies of documents you send in the mail and keep good records of your interactions with the credit bureau. When submitting your security freeze request with Equifax, you'll need to include various forms of identification:
- Full and complete name (including JR, SR, II, III)
- Complete physical address
- Social Security Number
- Date of birth
- Payment (if applicable)
- Proof of identification, such as a driver's license
Once your security freeze request has been made, the credit bureau is required by law to process it, typically within one to three business days or more, depending upon your state. Afterwards the agency will send you a confirmation letter that contains a unique PIN.
To freeze your credit report with TransUnion, you must start by creating a secure online account with TransUnion using their website. If you prefer to talk to a customer service representative, you can do so by calling 888-909-8872. As you go through the registration process, make sure you have this information handy:
- Your full name, including middle initial and suffix, such as Jr., Sr. II, III
- Social Security Number
- A government-issued ID
- Date of birth
- Email address
- Current address (and all addresses you've lived at during the past two years)
- A copy of a utility bill or bank statement
As an added security measure, you may be required to provide additional proof of eligibility in order to use TransUnion's free security freeze services.
The Pros and Cons of Freezing Your Credit Report
Pros of Freezing Your Credit Report
No new accounts
No one will be able to open any new accounts in your name, which can help you avoid the hassle of working with creditors to eliminate fraudulent transactions.
Freezing your credit can be a free identity-protection measure
For victims of identity theft, placing a freeze on your credit report is completely free. If you just suspect identity theft, however, some states still offer free credit freezing.
A freeze won't hurt your credit
Putting a freeze on your credit report won't undermine your credit score.
Greater control of your credit
A security freeze gives you greater control of your credit by preventing other people from accessing your information. This means less stress and more peace of mind.
A credit freeze can be temporary
You can put in a request for a temporary lift of the security freeze whenever you need to, so don't feel like you have to make a permanent decision.
Cons of Freezing Your Credit Report
No one can access your credit report
The problem with freezing your credit, is that no one — not even you — can access it immediately. If you're planning to take out a loan in the near future, this can impede your plans. You can ask for a temporary lift of the freeze, but in some states it can take up to three days.
Lifting a credit freeze takes time
You can lift a credit freeze whenever you like, but beware that this will take time to fully take effect.
Current accounts are not covered
Any existing accounts that are already open may be susceptible to fraudulent activity. Placing a security freeze only applies to new accounts being opened or new charges that are applied. You can put a fraud alert on your existing accounts, though, which requires ID and a password of your choice when using your credit card.
There are simpler options
Requesting a security freeze may complicate your financial life, especially if you plan to apply for a mortgage, car loan or even a job. There may be simpler options—such as placing a fraud alert on your account—that are more effective and less time consuming.
When you're ready to get rid of your security freeze, contact all three credit bureaus and give them the PIN numbers you used to freeze the account. Under the law, they have to lift the security freeze within three days.
Resources for Protecting Your Credit
The Federal Trade Commission shares a PDF detailing how to take charge once your identity has been stolen.
Explains what to do if you need to place an extended freeze on your credit account.
Beware of these popular identity theft scams so you don't fall victim to them.
This resource is free for consumers and you'll find the answers to "how long it takes for a credit freeze to take effect" and "what a credit freeze doesn't do".
This questionnaire guides you through the questions to accurately determine your situation and your next steps for protecting your credit report.
In this PDF you'll find a guide to knowing what to look for when seeking help as a victim of ID theft.
Use this resource to define exactly what identity theft is and understand some of the laws against it.