Delays have dangerous ends, according to Shakespeare. And he was right, especially when it comes to protecting your finances.

Take credit freezes, also known as security freezes. Less than five percent of Americans have frozen their credit. The result, at least in part?

Nearly 17 million people in the U.S. were victims of identity theft in 2017 — an annual increase of eight percent. Perhaps surprisingly, a number of them were children. Identity fraud is estimated to affect nearly one in four children before they reach the age of 18.

Although a credit freeze won’t prevent every form of identity theft or financial scam, it plays an important role in protecting yourself and your family from thieves and scammers. In fact, Congress found freezes to be so essential that it passed legislation that makes them available free of charge, nationwide.

SEE ALSO A Victim of Identity Theft or Simply Want to Protect Yourself? What to Do Now

What is a Credit (Security) Freeze?

A credit freeze, initiated by you, prevents the disclosure of your credit information by the nation’s major credit bureaus. It does so until you specifically choose to unfreeze your credit.

As such, it represents the best defense available to protect you from an unscrupulous person using your name to open a new account or get credit.

Other options include fraud alerts, active duty alerts and credit locks.

What Does a Credit Freeze Do?

A credit freeze restricts lenders, potential lenders and, depending on state law, others like landlords and employers from accessing your credit report. Without access to your credit information, scammers cannot open new financial accounts in your name, using your credit. Think new credit cards, car loans, mortgages, utilities accounts and many more.

Federal law mandates that these credit freezes be made available, free of charge, from the nation’s three major credit bureaus: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.

A freeze typically lasts until you take action to unfreeze it, but you can request a temporary freeze.

You can initiate or end a freeze online or by phone.

What Doesn’t a Credit Freeze Do?

A credit freeze does not protect your existing accounts from identity theft or other forms of financial scam. These scams typically don’t require access to your credit records to pull off.

That means even with a credit freeze you still need to safeguard your Social Security number, passwords and other personal and financial information. It’s also wise to monitor your credit by requesting a free credit report every year, encompassing all three credit bureaus. You can make the request online.

SEE ALSO Data Breaches and Cybercriminals Have You Worried? What You Can Do

How to Freeze or Unfreeze Your Credit

As noted, the three major credit bureaus are required by law to provide you with the ability to freeze and unfreeze your credit.

You can request a freeze (or unfreeze) online, by phone or by mail. For a temporary freeze, you’ll need to provide a time period and/or who you want to receive your credit information.

Unfortunately, as credit bureaus do not share freeze/unfreeze requests, you must make a separate request of each bureau. Their websites provide the details:

bullet graphic: green arrow Equifax

bullet graphic: green arrow Experian

bullet graphic: green arrow TransUnion

When you request a freeze, you’ll typically establish an account with a PIN. It’s essential that you safeguard your PIN as it can be time-consuming to request a new one — typically delivered by the U.S. Post Office.

How to Freeze Credit for a Child, Dependent or Other Loved One

Parents can freeze credit for children under the age of 16. Adult children can freeze a parent’s credit. An adult can freeze a spouse’s credit. An adult can also freeze an incapacitated adult’s credit.

In each case, you’ll need some or all of the following:

bullet graphic: green arrow a formal request for the freeze

bullet graphic: green arrow documentation to establish your authority to initiate the freeze, such as a power of attorney or a court order

bullet graphic: green arrow documentation to prove your identity and the identity of the person whose credit is being frozen

Although you cannot ask to freeze credit for a deceased person, you can request that the credit bureaus include a note on the person’s credit file that he or she is deceased. The credit bureaus do share this information, so contacting one bureau is sufficient.

You’ll need to provide a copy of the death certificate and the deceased’s Social Security number and other personal and identifying information. You’ll also need to provide proof of your authority to initiate this action — with a power of attorney or as spouse or executor.

What About Fraud Alerts and Credit Locks?

Fraud alerts and credit locks are additional options that can help protect you from credit scams.

They aren’t mutually exclusive. For extra protection, it’s generally possible to establish credit freezes, fraud alerts and credit locks.

Fraud and Active Duty Alerts

A fraud alert or an active duty alert requires the credit bureau to take action to verify that it’s really you applying for credit before it can share your credit information. Unlike a freeze, the alert doesn’t totally prevent the credit bureau from sharing credit information.

In most cases, these alerts extend for a period of one year. However, if you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you can request a seven-year extended fraud alert.

Credit Lock

Similar to a credit freeze, a credit lock prevents potential lenders, credit card issuers and others from accessing your credit information.

Credit locks are voluntary products developed for and promoted by the credit bureaus, implemented via smartphone apps. As a result, they’re relative quick and easy.

Unlike freezes and alerts, locks are voluntary offerings, not mandated by the federal government, so they’re not subject to the same rules. For example, they aren’t required to be offered free.

Currently, one of the three major credit bureaus offers a free credit lock app. A second offers a lock only if you agree to receive marketing emails and a third bundles it with a paid monitoring service.

Beware the fine print that comes with using the app. You might, for example, be waiving your right to participate in a class-action lawsuit.

Other Steps to Take

Credit freezes, fraud alerts and credit locks only prevent identity thieves and scammers from opening new accounts or take out new loans. They don’t protect them from accessing existing financial accounts.

That means even with a credit freeze/lock or fraud alert, you still need to safeguard your Social Security number, passwords and other personal and financial information. You also need strong passwords to help protect yourself online.

SEE ALSO Need Better, Safer Passwords? What to Know

It’s also wise to monitor your credit — and that of children and other family members who aren’t or can’t do so themselves — by requesting a free credit report every year, encompassing all three credit bureaus. You can request the credit report online.

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