by Teresa Murray, Consumer Watchdog
You have two primary options for freezing your credit files with the three major credit bureaus. You can do it by phone or online, whichever you’re more comfortable with.
Below are instructions for doing it by phone. Here’s a link to a U.S. PIRG staffer’s step-by-step account of freezing her files online for the first time.
To freeze your credit files by phone:
Before you embark on your freeze journey, you should make sure you are ready. You can do all of the tasks through the automated operator; you don't need to talk to a live person. Here are some important tips:
1, Don’t try to multi-task. It’s not difficult to freeze or thaw your files. But you shouldn’t do it while you’re watching TV or cooking dinner. You need to focus and follow the prompts in a timely fashion. You should be able to complete all three bureaus in 15 to 20 minutes if you don’t make mistakes or miss your prompts and need to start over.
2. Have a pen and paper next to you.
3. Have ready (writing everything down isn't a bad idea):
Your full name
Your current address
Your Social Security number
Your date of birth (numerically, i.e. June 2, 1980 is 06/02/1980.
Your cell phone number.
A six-digit PIN. Think of this ahead of time. For now, TransUnion requires you to generate your own six-digit PIN. Don't make it something like your birth date or any part of your SSN or phone number or address.
Honestly, consider writing down the numbers ahead of time to have everything in front of you. It's easy to get flustered when the computer voice prompts give you only a few seconds to enter your information.
4. Don’t get confused or talked into a fraud alert or a lock. You want a FREEZE.
5. Don’t have your phone on speaker. The computer often picks up background noise and proceeds as if you gave a wrong response. Or it hangs up on you. This is extremely frustrating. (At least one of the credit bureaus recommends you not use a cell phone. That’s unrealistic, though, considering about half the adult population has only a cell phone -- no landline or VoIP line.
6. Don’t get talked into identity theft monitoring or any paid service. You don’t need a credit or debit card to freeze or thaw your file. If you get asked to enter payment information, you’ve traveled down a rabbit hole.
7. If you freeze your file, make sure you keep your records of your PINs/passwords in a secure but handy place, like wherever you keep your Social Security card, passport, birth certificate, etc. It can be a pain to try to thaw your files if you can't find your PIN.
Freezing your files:
We’re hesitant to tell you what numbers to press, 1 for this and 2 for that, because the bureaus periodically change their automated menus. But I will encourage you to listen closely — don’t try to multitask — and press anything that talks about credit freezes or thaws or fraud alerts or security. You just have to pay attention and follow the prompts and you’ll get there. I promise. It’s quite simple if you follow the tips above. You should be able to accomplish all three in 15 to 20 minutes.
Thawing your files:
Here’s what I experienced while thawing my files temporarily. As with the information above, I recommend you write out the dates when you want your freeze to be lifted or thawed and when you want them frozen again. You can’t choose today’s date. So your date to thaw them might be 03/10/2021 and the end date might be 03/31/2021.
Also, you should build a bit of a buffer. If you’re planning to buy a car and apply for a loan Thursday, for example, thaw them today and leave the files unfrozen for maybe a week or two, not just one day.
Like with the initial freeze, sometimes you need to enter the pound key (#) after your entry. Sometimes you don't. Just pay attention.
Experian -- It took 3 minutes:
You need your PIN. For Experian, I got messed up initially because the PIN number Experian mailed me years ago was 15 digits long. But the first five digits were zeroes. I couldn’t remember whether those zeroes counted as digits or not. They don’t count. After it didn’t go through the first time, I used just the 10 digits after the zeroes.
Even with that hiccup, the thaw took a total of only three minutes.
TransUnion -- It took 2 minutes:
You need your PIN. TransUnion was a breeze. Initially, you must tell the automated operator what you want by saying “freeze.” It took a mere two minutes to thaw the credit file by phone.
Equifax -- It took 7 minutes:
Equifax is the most cumbersome by phone, but you don’t need any PIN. The introductory message talks about the 2017 data breach settlement and your options for obtaining your credit report at no charge.
The automated menu takes you through this maze of choices. It’s thorough but takes a while to slog through it. If you're doing it by phone, it will text you a code in real time that you'll have to enter to verify your identity.
You need four pieces of information: Your phone number (preferably a cell), your Social Security number, the numeric portion of your address and your ZIP code.
Thawing the file took seven minutes. You can get the confirmation sent to you by text and mail if you’d like.