How credit freezes work, what they cost
By Fred O. Williams
Below are examples of the costs associated with implementing and stopping a credit freeze in various states. These costs are determined by state law. (NOTE: These are the costs for doing these things with one credit bureau. For complete protection, it's necessary to do any of these actions with all three bureaus, thus the real cost would be three times the amount below.)
Also see "Credit freeze laws and costs in all 50 states."
|Initial placement||Temporary freeze lift||Lift freeze for specific lender||Freeze removal||Replace PIN fee|
|Details: Free if the consumer submits or has previously submitted a valid police report or Department of Motor Vehicle Investigative Report that alleges a violation of Section 530.5 of the Penal Code, the state's identity theft law. If the consumer is 65 or older, the fees drop to $5.|
|Details: Free for Florida residents who submit (or have previously submitted) a valid police report. If the consumer is 65 or older, no fee will be charged for a replacement PIN or to permanently remove a freeze. There is a $10 fee to temporarily lift the security freeze. Credit bureaus may lift freeze for a specific lender although it is not required under state law.|
|$0 for first freeze; subsequent freezes $5 each||$5||$5||$5||$5|
|Details: Free if the consumer submits or has previously submitted a valid police report or a signed FTC ID Theft Victim's Affidavit. Victims of domestic violence may also place or lift a freeze free of charge.|
|Details: Free to place, temporarily lift or permanently remove the security freeze, or obtain a replacement PIN, for consumers who submit a valid police report, investigative report or complaint made under Section 32.51 of the Penal Code.|
|Sources:Identity Theft Resource Center, Consumers Union, state laws
Credit freezes can be a great tool for protecting yourself against identity theft, but they're not for everyone. If, for example, you suspect that you might be an ID theft target because of a data breach at a company where you use your card, setting a temporary fraud alert with the credit bureaus is a simpler and no-cost alternative.
Those who sell credit freezes don't like them much. "Freezing your credit file is an extreme step that removes you from the credit marketplace," says Rod Griffin, director of public education with the credit bureau Experian.
"It is still very important to understand that freezing your credit file will not prevent identity theft, although it is often misrepresented in that way," Griffin says. Freezes, for example, don't prevent fraudsters from accessing an existing card account, if they already have the necessary information.
In place of credit freezes, the credit reporting industry typically promotes credit monitoring services, which bureaus and banks sell to their customers, or fraud alerts, which are available for free from the credit bureaus and do not block access to credit reports.
A fraud alert requires lenders to verify your identity before opening a new account, usually by calling the phone number that you supply with the alert. Filing the alert also entitles you to a free copy of each of your credit reports, beyond the free copy that everyone may obtain annually.
Credit freezes go further than either credit monitoring or alert by making credit reports inaccessible to lenders and others who might have an interest in viewing a consumer's credit history. Available from each of the three major credit bureaus, the credit freeze comes at a price – anywhere from free to $10 per bureau, with the cost determined by state laws – but will remain in place indefinitely, provided the consumer doesn't remove the freeze.
A freeze on credit is different from other fraud prevention tools. Critics of fraud alerts say even when they are in place, not all lenders take the step of notifying a borrower abou credit inquiries. They also argue that credit monitoring – which must be renewed every year or so – only lets borrowers know that fraud may have taken place. But by then, it's already too late.
Consumer advocates say that credit freezes typically cost less than other options and are even free for some consumers. "A credit freeze is both cheaper and far more effective than credit monitoring," says Ridout. He says that although credit monitoring services have millions of subscribers, they remain an "unambiguous waste of money."
Only a small one-time fee – often $10 – is required to place a credit freeze at each of the three bureaus, while credit monitoring can cost the consumer $120 or more each year, says Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy with the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
For many consumers, "It would be much more economical to obtain a security freeze and make a one-time payment, which would be the case for most people, and then be done with it," he says.
Credit freezes are also becoming easier to use. "We have been able to make significant improvements in the credit file freezing process since it was first instituted several years ago. In most instances, freezes can be lifted via the Internet or telephone in a matter of minutes," says Experian's Griffin.
So who's the best fit for a credit freeze? "The advantages of a credit freeze rise with age," says Ridout. That's because younger consumers tend to frequently apply for credit cards, mortgages and new jobs, while senior citizens have less need for credit but more reason to be cautious.
"As people get older, it's been shown that the time necessary to recover from identity theft tends to go up," Stephens says. Plus, there comes a time when getting approved for more credit just isn't necessary. "At a certain point in life, you may have all the credit you need," Ridout says.
People involved in nasty divorces may also want to consider freezing their credit, since their spouse may have all the information (name, Social Security number, etc.) needed to open new accounts in their identity, says Stephens.
Unfortunately, the steps required to freeze credit aren't always clear. With no federal credit freeze law in place, consumers are left to navigate a patchwork of state laws. Consumer advocates acknowledge that this can present a challenge. "There really is no uniformity in terms of the costs and time frames for both placing and lifting credit freezes. You do find a tremendous difference from state to state," Stephens says.
Fifty states and the District of Columbia have enacted legislation allowing consumers to place security freezes on their credit reports, according to the National Conference of States Legislatures.
Prices vary. The cost to put a freeze in place ranges from free (for ID theft victims or senior citizens) in some states to $20 per freeze in Delaware, while the cost of unfreezing runs from free to $18. The most-common price is $10, but in 44 states, no fee is charged to identity theft victims. Twenty states require victims to provide a police report to qualify for a free freeze. The cost of unfreezing runs from free to $12.
Since it's necessary to line up freezes with all three major credit reporting bureaus – Experian, Equifax and TransUnion – for complete protection, the cost for a freeze needs to be multiplied by three.
Credit freezes may cause some other headaches for consumers, including:
Consumer advocates say that the credit reporting industry has another reason for pushing other options instead of credit freezes: money. Banks and bureaus sell credit monitoring services to their customers and thus have a vested interest in promoting them. "The superior product doesn't have a corporation behind it. And for that reason, the credit freeze gets much less attention that it deserves," says Ridout.
And that's a shame, experts say. After all, a credit freeze is a good choice for many consumers, they say, but people can't take advantage of a tool they've never heard of.