By Doug Matus
The term “credit freeze” can sound negative, as if a lifetime of poor financial choices could cause a person’s credit to become unusable, or “frozen.” In reality, credit freezes exist to protect and benefit consumers and are powerful tools in the fight against identity theft.
A credit freeze should not be undertaken lightly, however, as they do carry consequences. Many people also worry that freezes can somehow reflect poorly on a credit report. These are natural concerns, and a review of credit freezes — what they are and how to use them — can dispel all fears and concerns. See our complete guide to freezing your credit.
David Bakke, a credit expert with MoneyCrashers.com, defines credit freezes in clear, succinct terms:
“A credit freeze is something you initiate through the various credit reporting agencies. It restricts people from accessing your credit report, and thereby prevents criminals from opening accounts in your name.”
In other words, all a credit freeze does is restrict access to your credit report (learn how to read your credit report). This simple action can have profound consequences, as it prevents lenders from granting new credit. Should a thief wish to create an account in your name, the lender will refuse.
To enact a credit freeze, you need to contact each of three major credit reporting agencies: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Once frozen, your credit remains so until a time of your choosing. If you wish to apply for a credit card or loan but do not want to lift the freeze, you can trigger temporary access through the use of a PIN.
Before you decide to pull the trigger on a freeze, ask yourself whether it’s necessary. People generally enact credit freezes for one of two reasons.
“Credit freezes are usually put in place when someone is the victim of severe identity theft,” says Amanda Abella, savings advisor for MoneySavingPro.com. “Sometimes people also do it to limit their own access to credit.”
Identity theft occurs when a criminal uses stolen information to impersonate you for material gain. Typical identity theft occurs as fraud, which is when a criminal gains access to credit or debit cards you already own. Severe identity theft happens when a criminal gains access to your Social Security number and other vital information, and uses it to apply for new credit cards or loans.
If you ever expect that the latter has occurred, you would want to enact a credit freeze immediately. If, for whatever reason, you have a genuine fear that you’ve exposed yourself to severe identity theft, you can also enact a preventative freeze.
The second reason for a freeze is personal. Since credit freezes put an automatic stop on requests for new credit, they can help curtail bad financial behavior. Of course, the freeze can get lifted at any time, but the effort of contacting the credit agencies can encourage self-control and more careful consideration.
If you’re worried that a credit freeze may somehow look bad to lenders, or otherwise harm your credit, then rest easy: credit freezes have zero impact on your credit score.
“Your existing creditors continue to report borrowing and payment information, and the bureaus continue applying updates to your file,” says Kevin Haney of Savvy On Credit. “Your existing creditors can run periodic annual reviews, and a person can still build credit.”
Though your credit report gets locked down, creditors can still send you pre-approved offers. Thieves can steal these and return them without your knowledge, so you’ll want to habitually destroy unwanted offers to get the most benefits out of your credit freeze.
The only real downside of a credit freeze is that it limits your personal access to credit. If you have a credit card with no set limit, for example, or forget to lift the freeze before you apply for a loan, your freeze will lead to credit denial. Learn more about getting denied for a credit card.
With foresight and self-control, however, you can reap all the benefits of a freeze and none of the drawbacks. At the cost of just a little convenience, a credit freeze provides an ideal way to protect yourself while you continue to build your credit.
Doug Matus is a freelance writer who frequently contributed to Self Financial.