Credit card companies, merchants, other businesses, and government entities do not always adequately safeguard consumers' private financial information, making it relatively easy for thieves to steal this data and use it to take out new credit or to rack up charges on existing accounts. As a result, identity theft is one of the fastest growing financial crimes. More than 8 million Americans fall victim each year.
One of the best identity theft prevention tools is the security freeze. A security freeze gives consumers the choice to “freeze” or lock access to their credit file against anyone trying to open up a new account or to get new credit in their name.
When a security freeze is in place at all three major credit reporting agencies, a consumer's credit report and credit score cannot be shared with potential creditors or other persons considering opening new accounts unless the consumer decides to unlock the file by contacting a consumer reporting agency and providing a PIN or password. To help you decide if getting a security freeze is right for you, click here.
Most businesses will not issue new credit or provide goods or services for later payment to an individual without first reviewing his or her credit report or credit score. If an individual consumer reporting file is frozen and an imposter applies for credit in that individual's name, a creditor likely would deny the imposter's application, preventing an instance of identity theft.
Under a security freeze law, people who choose to freeze access to their consumer reporting files may temporarily lift the freeze when they want to use their own credit files. When a consumer places the freeze, the consumer reporting agency issues a unique PIN to the consumer that can be used to "thaw" or lift the security freeze for a particular entity or for a designated period of time.
What does placing a security freeze mean?
A security freeze tells the consumer reporting agencies not to give access to your consumer reporting file or your credit score unless you have authorized that access or the entity seeking to see your file has an exemption from the security freeze law, as do your current creditors. Placing a security freeze at all three major credit reporting agencies stops most persons from accessing your consumer reporting files. This prevents crooks from using your credit record to open false new accounts because most businesses will not open new accounts without first checking credit history. If your consumer reporting file is frozen, even someone who knows your name, date of birth and Social Security Number should be stopped from opening new accounts in your name.
Can I apply for credit when my file is frozen?
When you want additional credit, you can open your file with a PIN or a password and the business extending the credit will decide whether to issue the credit.
How does a state security freeze differ from a federal fraud alert?
A security freeze is a mechanism to prevent new account identity theft. Only a security freeze allows the consumer to limit access to his or her consumer reporting file. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act creates two types of fraud alerts, but the only type available to consumers who have not yet been victims of identity theft, called the initial fraud alert, expires after 90 days unless renewed. The very short time period makes this a poor tool for ID theft prevention. The extended fraud alert is restricted to ID theft victims. Neither the initial nor the extended fraud alert stops the release of the credit report or the credit score. Instead, under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act, when a fraud alert is attached to a credit file, potential creditors must take certain steps to verify a credit applicant's identity before extending credit. The fraud alert, however, does not prevent the potential creditor from getting the credit report or the credit score.
A security freeze grants each consumer the right to prevent the consumer reporting agency from issuing his or her credit report or score for the purpose of issuing new credit or opening new accounts. Unlike the federal fraud alert, the security freeze actually stops access to the consumer credit report and the credit score except for circumstances such as review of existing accounts, other limited purposes, or the express permission of the consumer.
Would anyone have access to a consumer's credit file if it is frozen?
Yes, the state security freeze laws include some necessary exemptions to the freeze. Security freezes do not apply to any person or entity with whom the consumer has an existing account, nor to a limited number of other parties who may access the files for purposes not related to new accounts, such as law enforcement agencies and certain governmental agencies that need them for investigations and other statutory responsibilities.
Which states already have passed laws giving consumers the right to a security freeze?
Thirty nine states and the District of Columbia have passed security freeze laws: Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, New York, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Vermont, Washington, West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming.
For more information, see Consumers Union’s Guide to the Security Freeze.
Is the security freeze available in states that haven’t passed laws requiring it?
Beginning November 1, 2007, all three major credit reporting agencies (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) will make the security freeze option available to consumers living in the eleven states that haven’t passed laws requiring it.
For more information, see Consumers Union’s Guide to the Security Freeze
How do I place a freeze?
Detailed instructions for placing the freeze can be found at:Consumers Union’s Guide to the Security Freeze
Does placing a freeze affect my credit score?
No. Placing a freeze has no effect on your credit score.
How long does a freeze last?
A freeze generally lasts until you remove it.
Consumers Union Financial Services Campaign
West Coast Office
Consumers Union of U.S., Inc.