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How to freeze your credit following the Capital One breach

Capital One hack exposes identities of millions
Capital One hack exposes identities of millio... 02:18
  • Freezing your credit is now free free thanks to a 2018 law issued following a massive data breach at Equifax, one of three major credit bureaus.
  • Placing a freeze at all three credit reporting agencies can be done over the phone or online.
  • Parents may also want to freeze their children's credit reports, which are especially valued by criminals.

The cyberattack that exposed millions of Capital One customers' data has many consumers wondering how to protect themselves against fraud or other misuse of their personal information. The best answer, security experts say: Freeze your credit as soon as possible. 

Locking down your credit is much easier than it used to be — and it's completely free, thanks to a law that went into effect last year. Still, there's a misperception that freezing your credit is a hassle and requires a substantial amount of time, said Eva Velasquez, CEO of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

"The credit bureaus have made it a much less arduous process," she said. "I recently talked with a consumer who took a day off work and thought, 'I'm finally going to do this,' and it took a little over an hour to do all three."

That hour is time well-spent, Velasquez said. Credit freezes deter fraud by barring new creditors from accessing your payment history, which halts lenders from issuing new credit based on your file. As the Federal Trade Commission puts it, a credit freeze "locks down your credit."

If you don't freeze your credit, fraudsters armed with a stolen Social Security number — one piece of data that was compromised when an alleged hacker accessed accounts for 140,000 customers in the Capital One breach — can open new accounts in your name, racking up debt and leaving you with a serious financial mess to clean up.

Read on to learn how to freeze your credit.

3 credit bureaus

Consumers will need to call or visit the websites of the three major credit-reporting bureaus. Here are the links to where you can freeze your credit at the agencies:

You'll need to provide information, such as your name, birthdate and Social Security number as well as some other pieces of personal info to prove your identity. The credit bureaus will give you a PIN or a password that allow you to lift or cancel the credit freeze.

How to make a temporary lift

A credit freeze applies to everyone asking for new credit in your name — including you. That's why you'll need to keep your PIN or password handy if you ever want want to lift the freeze in order to apply for new credit.

Freezes can be lifted for a specific period of time or lifted altogether. For instance, if you know you'll be applying for a mortgage in September, you can request a temporary lift for the month. You can also request temporary lifts for weeks or specific days.

If a request is made online or via the phone, the credit bureaus are required to issue the temporary lift within an hour. If you make the request by mail, the companies have three business days from the date they receive your request, according to the FTC.

Freezing your children's credit

While freezing your credit may only take a few minutes, that's not the case with freezing your child's credit reports. 

Still, that extra work is worth the effort, said Charity Lacey, vice president of communications at the Identity Theft Resource Center. Criminals prize children's data because it typically enables them to open fraudulent accounts without any checks until the victim turns 18 — at which point they may discover the scam accounts when they, say, apply for financial aid at colleges or seek to open their first credit cards.

"You have to follow processes at each of the three credit bureaus to prove you have the legal right" to freeze a minor's credit report, she said. 

  • Equifax requires a minor freeze request form. Parents or guardians will also need to mail copies of birth certificates, Social Security cards and other paperwork to prove their relationship to the child.
  • TransUnion requires parents or guardians to mail a consent form, as well as similar documents. 
  • Experian's consent form can be found here, and you'll have to send copies of these documents to prove your relationship to the child.

What a credit freeze won't do

Credit freezes won't impact your credit score or prevent you from accessing your free annual credit report, the FTC says. 

It also won't stop those credit card offers clogging up your mailbox. In order to put a halt to those, the agency recommends calling 1-888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688) or going online to opt out of pre-screened credit offers. 

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