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Guide to Freezing Your Credit (and Credit Cards)

Guide to Freezing Your Credit (and Credit Cards)
Jason Steele
Jason SteeleUpdated August 11, 2022
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Editor’s note: Lantern by SoFi seeks to provide content that is objective, independent and accurate. Writers are separate from our business operation and do not receive direct compensation from advertisers or partners. Read more about our Editorial Guidelines and How We Make Money.
Identity theft and credit card fraud are huge (and growing) problems. Consumers reported losing more than $3.3 billion to fraud in 2020, up from $1.8 billion in 2019, according to a 2021 Federal Trade Commission report. Fortunately, we have very effective tools to deal with fraud and credit card theft, and even prevent problems before they happen. Two of the best are freezing your credit and freezing your credit cards. A credit freeze keeps the sensitive data in your credit files from being accessed without your specific consent. A credit card freeze puts a hold on your cards so that nobody can use it to make new purchases. Read on to learn how to freeze your accounts, which type of freeze to use when, as well how to “thaw” them when you’re ready.

What Is a Credit Freeze?

A credit freeze, also called a security freeze, restricts access to your credit reports. This prevents lenders and creditors from reviewing your credit reports when considering a new credit application. Freezing your credit can be a smart idea if you think your social security or credit card information has been compromised since it prevents criminals from being able to open new accounts in your name and perpetrating other credit card scams.

How a Credit Freeze Works

Consumers can request a credit freeze with each of the three major consumer credit bureaus. Once granted, consumers receive a PIN or password that enables them to unfreeze (or thaw) their credit when they need to make an application for new credit. 

What Is a Credit Card Freeze?

A credit card freeze is different from a credit freeze as it only affects a single account. With a credit card freeze, the card cannot be used for new charges or balance transfers. However, your recurring payments will still be authorized and you can still receive credits for returned items. A credit card freeze is typically initiated by cardholders who have lost or misplaced their card, but still hold out the hope of finding it and don’t want to order a replacement. For example, if you leave your card in a restaurant, you may wish to freeze the account until you’re able to retrieve it. Once reactivated, you still have the same account number and credit card CVV.

How a Credit Card Freeze Works

You can freeze your credit card freeze online, through your card issuer’s mobile app, or by calling the card issuer. The credit card freeze prevents new purchases online or in-person, but doesn’t affect scheduled payments or refunds. If the card doesn’t turn up, you can report it lost or stolen and have it replaced. But if you find the card, you can simply unfreeze it just as easily as you froze it – by going online, using the app, or calling the card issuer – and using your PIN or password. 

When to Freeze Your Credit 

You should freeze your credit any time you’ve been made aware that your personally identifiable information has been stolen or that someone has fraudulently opened an account in your name. You can also freeze your credit merely as a precaution if you are not actively shopping for a credit card or loan, since so many corporations have been hacked in recent years. However, you’ll need to unfreeze your credit if you plan to apply for a credit card or loan, since the creditor will need to access your credit reports as part of the approval process.

When to Freeze a Credit Card

It’s a good idea to freeze your credit card any time you’ve misplaced your card. You may not know if the card is lost or stolen, but freezing the card prevents its use until it’s found. You should also freeze your credit card if you notice any potentially fraudulent activity on the card.

How to Place a Free Credit Freeze

To freeze your credit reports, you must contact each of the three major credit consumer credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.  Here’s how to do it.
  • Equifax: Call 800-349-9960 or go to their website 
  • Experian: Call 888‑397‑3742 or go to their website 
  • TransUnion: Call 888-909-8872 or go to their website 
You’ll generally need to supply your address, Social Security number, and date of birth to initiate a credit freeze. 

Freezing Your Child’s Credit

Criminals often seek to exploit the credit information of minors. Just because they are underage doesn’t mean fraudsters can’t use their information to open credit cards. Parents and guardians can freeze the credit of a child under 16. If you decide to do so, you’ll again need to make separate requests to each bureau. These requests, however, have to be done through the mail, since you’ll need to supply the child’s birth certificate or other proof of guardianship.

Freezing Your Parents’ or Other Adult Relatives’ Credit

If you are caring for a disabled or older loved one, you can also request a credit freeze on their behalf if you have power of attorney or a court order. Here, too, you’ll have to contact the individual bureaus directly.

How to Lift a Credit Freeze

You can lift a credit freeze by going to the credit bureau website and using the PIN or password you used to freeze your credit to unfreeze your credit. You can also unfreeze your credit by phone or mail. If you are applying for a credit card or a loan, you can ask the lender which credit bureau it will contact to check your credit and only unfreeze that one. You can also opt to unfreeze your credit for a specific period of time, after which the freeze will automatically resume.

How Long It Takes for a Credit Freeze to Be Lifted

If the request to unfreeze your credit is made online or by phone, it can typically be done in a matter of minutes, though sometimes it can take up to an hour. If you make the request by mail, it can take several days. 

Credit Freeze vs Fraud Alert

While a credit freeze prevents any accounts from being opened, a fraud alert simply asks lenders and creditors to take extra precautions to verify your identity. This can be a good step to take if you think your information might have been compromised, but aren’t exactly sure.Unlike credit freezes, which require you to contact each of the major bureaus, you only have to contact one bureau for a fraud alert. That bureau — whether it’s Equifax, Experian or TransUnion — must then contact the other two to have them place fraud alerts too.Recommended: Guide to Reporting Credit Card Fraud 

Credit Freeze vs Credit Lock

A credit lock is like a credit freeze. The difference is that a credit lock is a subscription service offered by a credit bureau that allows you to activate and disable a freeze (or lock) instantly through an app or a secure website. While a credit freeze is free, there is usually a fee for a credit lock service.Keep in mind that a credit lock is different from a credit monitoring service, which is a commercial, fee-based service that will alert you if any changes are made to your credit reports or your credit score changes, so you can review your accounts for fraudulent transactions. Credit monitoring is also different from a credit freeze.Recommended: How Much is Credit Monitoring?

Freezing a Credit Card vs Deactivating a Card

When you freeze a credit card, it cannot be used for new purchases online or in-person, but can still be used for scheduled purchases and returns. When you deactivate a card, that particular card can’t be used to purchase items in-person. However, your account in general can still be used for online purchases.Both a credit card freeze and deactivating a card differ from closing a credit card account, which involves mailing a certified letter to your card issuer to cancel the account. This is a permanent measure.

What Happens When You Freeze Your Credit?

When you freeze your credit, lenders and creditors will not be able to access your credit reports. However, all of your existing accounts continue to function normally. 

Does a Credit Freeze Hurt Your Credit Score?

No, a credit freeze doesn’t hurt your credit scores. If you decide to open a new account, you will simply have to lift the credit freeze before you apply.

Drawbacks of a Credit Freeze

There are some potential downsides to freezing your credit. Here are a few to consider.
  • It can give you a false sense of security. Scammers won’t be able to open a new account in your name. But if an existing credit account has already been compromised, you may still be susceptible to fraudulent charges. It’s still important to check monthly statements carefully for signs of fraudulent activity.
  • It could affect your insurance rates. Insurance companies sometimes check credit information to set rates. If your account is frozen, they won’t be able to access your credit information and you could miss out on a discount that having a good score could entitle you to. If you are shopping or renewing a policy, ask your agent if you should unfreeze your credit.
  • It can be a little inconvenient. When you freeze your credit, you’ll need to remember to lift the freeze when you want to apply for new credit. However, that little bit of inconvenience is tiny compared to what you’d have to go through to untangle identify theft or fraud.

Who Can Access Frozen Credit Reports?

Even when your credit report is frozen it can still be accessed by yourself, including getting free credit reports. It can also be accessed by federal, state, and local government agencies and, if you give permission, by employers and landlords. Creditors and lenders that you have an existing relationship with can also still have access to your credit files.

The Takeaway

Credit freezes and credit card freezes are two powerful tools to help protect consumers from becoming victims of credit card fraud and identity theft. By understanding what these tools are, and how they work, you can utilize them to reduce the chances that your personal and credit card information will become compromised.If you’re in the market for a new credit card and have frozen your credit, you simply need to unfreeze it before you apply. With Lantern by SoFi’s online credit card marketplace, it’s easy to compare multiple credit card offers matched to your needs and qualifications all in one place.

Frequently Asked Questions

Can you still build credit with a credit freeze?
Is credit freezing a good idea?
How does a credit freeze affect credit monitoring services?
Is there a downside to freezing your credit?
Photo credit: iStock/ljubaphoto

About the Author

Jason Steele

Jason Steele

Jason Steele has been writing about credit cards and award travel since 2008. One of the nation's leading experts in this field, he has contributed to dozens of personal finance and travel outlets and has been widely quoted in the mainstream media.
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