Free credit freezes now available through credit bureaus

Due to a change in law earlier this year, consumers in Wisconsin and across the United States are now able to place free credit freezes on their credit reports from the three major consumer reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.

A credit freeze, also called a security freeze, is one of the strongest steps you can take to prevent people from fraudulently opening new accounts in your name. A credit freeze restricts people’s access to your credit report, and you will likely need to lift the freeze when applying for new credit.

Credit freezes do not prevent your current creditors from reviewing your credit report. Your existing insurance company may review your credit report before renewing a policy, for example, or your credit card company may check your credit report before increasing your credit limit. Also, a freeze will not prevent new accounts from being opened by creditors who do not use credit reporting data.

Previously in Wisconsin, it cost $10 to place a credit freeze on each credit report at each of the three major bureaus unless you were a victim of identity theft. It then cost another $10 to lift each freeze when applying for credit. Under the new rules, if somebody previously purchased a credit freeze, the current freeze will stay in effect, but with no reimbursement for previous charges. Lifting of future freezes and re-freezing will be free.

Although most children will not have a credit history, identity thieves may still use children’s personal information and Social Security number to open fraudulent lines of credit. The new law allows parents of children under the age of 16 to place a free credit freeze on their minor child’s credit report. Previously, credit freezes for minors depended on such factors as the state, the credit bureau, and whether the child had already been a victim of identity theft. Individuals who have Power of Attorney for Finances for an incapacitated adult can also request a credit freeze for that individual.

A credit freeze may or may not be right for each individual. A few things to keep in mind include:

  • A freeze prevents access to credit reports that might be needed for renting an apartment, opening a new cell phone plan, obtaining an insurance policy, or getting a new job with an employer who uses credit reports for hiring decisions. You will need to lift the freeze for these events.
  • College students and their parents who are in the process of financing a college education should note that private student loans and Federal Direct PLUS loans require a credit check, although several other Federal student loans do not. Applications for these types of loans will require temporarily lifting a freeze.
  • Older adults may also have trouble accessing Social Security benefit estimates online and may need to visit a local office if they have a credit freeze in place.

All three consumer reporting bureaus provide options for temporarily lifting a credit freeze either for all creditors or just a select creditor. This process could take anywhere from several hours to several days depending on the credit bureau and if the lift is requested online or through the mail.

Another new option available to consumers is to place a free one-year fraud alert on a credit report. The one-year option is an extension of the previous 90-day fraud alert that was available before the new law was put into place. A fraud alert will mean that a creditor needs to contact the consumer at the number in their credit report to get permission to open a new line of credit, that is if the creditor uses credit reports in lending decisions. An Active Duty Alert is also an option for service members on active military duty and is similar to the one-year fraud alert.

Consumers can request a free credit freeze or fraud alert by phone, mail, or visiting the consumer reporting agencies websites:

Note that there is no fee for the security or credit freeze or for the one-year fraud alerts. The credit bureaus do sell additional credit monitoring services on their websites that are not to be confused with this mandated free service. No credit card or bank account information is required for these free requests.

The UW-Extension’s “Check Your Free Credit Report: 2/2, 6/6, 10/10” campaign can help you keep track of these changes and also make the process of ordering your free credit reports as easy as possible. Anyone can sign up to receive an email reminder from UW-Extension three times a year—on 2/2, 6/6, and 10/10.