We have good news: The federal government has now made it possible for you to freeze and unfreeze your credit for free. Even better news if you’re a guardian, fiduciary, conservator or have a power of attorney for someone, you can now freeze that person’s credit as well. Being able to freeze and unfreeze credit can help protect anyone for whom you’re the financial caregiver from fraud or identity theft.
- What is identity theft? Identity theft is a subcategory of criminal fraud, which includes opening or using accounts without authorization. For example, when someone takes out a credit card or other financial instrument in someone else’s name, using misappropriated information about his or her identity, or uses an existing financial product, such as a stolen credit card number or checkbook, without authorization. See below for what to do if you’re concerned this may have happened to you or someone for whom you are providing care.
- What is a credit freeze? Also known as a security freeze, a credit freeze prevents someone else from opening new accounts or increasing lines of credit in your name. It also prevents a lender or creditor from accessing your credit history. Federal law now requires that credit bureaus offer credit freezes for free.
When you apply for a credit freeze, you’ll receive a PIN to use each time you want to freeze or unfreeze the account, in case you need to apply for new credit, for example.
- How do I freeze my own or someone else’s credit? To file this request, contact all three of the major credit reporting agencies: Equifax (800-685-1111), Experian (888-EXPERIAN), or TransUnion (888-909-8872). It can take the credit bureaus up to one business day for the freeze to go into effect and filing for a credit freeze does not affect your credit score. Your credit will remain frozen until you request that your credit freeze be lifted, with the exception that in PA, KY, and NE, the credit freeze will only last seven years or until you request it be lifted.
If you’re a financial caregiver for someone and are filing a request for a credit freeze or to lift a credit freeze on that person’s behalf, you’ll need to show a court order, power of attorney, or other documentation to verify your authority, as well as documents, such as birth certificates, verifying both your identity and that of other person.
- What does it mean to lift a credit freeze? A credit freeze remains in effect until you file a request to lift it with the major credit reporting agencies (list above). The process of lifting a credit freeze is also free and may take up to one hour if requested by phone or online, or up to three business days if requested by mail. Lifting a credit freeze can also be done temporarily for a short period of time (typically you specify the start and end date) or permanently. You will need the PIN you were given to lift the credit freeze for any length of time.
If you think a credit reporting agency has failed to properly place a credit freeze, you can submit a complaint online or by calling 855-411-2372.
Other ways to protect your finances or those of someone for whom you are caring:
You can place a fraud alert on your or someone else’s credit history by contacting the same agencies and using the same documentation required for a credit freeze. A fraud alert tells businesses checking your credit that they should check with you directly before opening a new account, meaning, for example, that a business should call to verify that you are attempting to take out new credit before issuing it. The new law has also updated the terms of fraud alerts, so that they now automatically last a full year, rather than 90 days. Fraud alerts remain free and identity theft victims can continue to receive extended fraud alerts for seven years.
A credit lock is another service that may provide protection to your credit report and is offered by major national credit bureaus. Credit locking services may come with monthly fees, unlike credit freezes, which are free, and not governed by federal law. Unlike credit freezes, these products may also include an arbitration clause and class action waiver to protect the credit reporting company against potential liability.
If your identity or that of someone for whom you are providing care may have been stolen:
- Contact IdentityTheft.gov
- File a police report
- Take precautions to protect your assets, such as instituting a credit freeze
- Review your credit report with each of the three credit agencies to ensure your personal information and financial details look correct: screen for any new accounts, credit requests, loans, or other transactions that don’t look familiar
- Follow up directly with companies about any charges that you didn’t authorize