What a Credit Freeze Does (and Doesn’t Do)

When it comes to preventing identity theft, anything you can do to reduce your risk is generally a wise move, even if no one thing (or combination of things) can make you 100% safe.

One step you can take is to freeze your credit file with each of the three major bureaus (Transunion, Experian and Equifax). This prevents creditors from accessing your credit file without taking additional steps to verify your identity. Since most creditors aren’t going to open a new line of credit without being able to see your file, it prevents one of the more common forms of identity theft, which is to open new fraudulent lines of credit which are then maxed out and never repaid.

However, there are things that a credit freeze won’t do, and it’s important to keep those in mind.

While a credit freeze prevents new credit accounts from being opened in your name (unless the freeze is temporarily lifted before applying), it does not, on the other hand, prevent unauthorized access to existing accounts. So, even if you’ve got a freeze in place, you still have to protect account numbers, passwords, PINs, your Social Security number, etc. That means you still have to watch out for phishing and other schemes designed to convince you to reveal this information to people who shouldn’t have it.

Similarly, if your credit or debit card information is compromised due to a data breach, a credit freeze won’t stop fraudulent charges from being attempted. Your card provider may have security protocols that automatically detect suspicious transactions, but that will happen whether you’ve got a credit freeze in place or not (you’ll also have to get a new card, since your old one is compromised).

A credit freeze also won’t prevent other forms of identity theft, such as using stolen information to obtain employment, medical services, government benefits or tax refunds, or to evade law enforcement.

A credit freeze won’t stop prescreened credit offers (for that, you need to call 888-5OPTOUT or visit https://www.optoutprescreen.com), and it also won’t keep existing creditors from viewing your credit files.

A freeze also won’t stop you from viewing your own credit reports, using your credit cards, or affect your credit score, which are misconceptions some people have about the process.

If you want to place a freeze on your credit files, the easiest way is to visit each of the major credit bureaus online and follow their instructions:

One more thing a credit freeze won’t do: remember its own PIN for you. When you place a freeze at each of the three bureaus, you will end up with a PIN for each one. It is important to keep this number in a secure location where you alone can access it, in case you need to apply for a new line of credit later. If you forget your PIN, you can reset it, but the process is not very convenient in most cases, as it requires providing additional documentation to prove that you are really who you claim to be.