SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX) — It's called a credit freeze or security freeze and it's the number one tool to prevent crooks from opening a credit account in your -- or your child's -- name. Trouble is, not many people are using it.
It used to be available only to identity theft victims, but now anyone with a credit file can request a freeze.
How does it work?
"If someone does a credit check, the credit check is rejected. That's the function and purpose of a freeze," explains Neal O'Farrell of the Identity Theft Network. "It rejects any new applications for credit using your information.
A credit freeze does not affect your existing credit – it simply prevents anyone from opening new credit in your name. And for adults, it's a fairly simple process.
You can apply for a credit freeze (aka Security freeze) with each of the three bureaus here:
Simply log on, answer some security questions, pay the fee (up to $10 per bureau depending on the state), and record your new security PIN. Now your account is frozen and no one can run a credit check.
Then, if you want to apply for a new credit card or a loan in the future, simply "thaw" your accounts using your security pin. It will cost up to $10 per bureau each time you freeze or thaw your accounts. "If you don't apply for a lot of credit, that's a pretty good deal," says O'Farrell.
But he warns, be careful not to misplace your security PIN. Un-freezing your account could be complicated without it. And while the "thaw" should go into effect immediately, you might want to allow a week-or so to let your credit thaw before you absolutely need it for a new loan.
O'Farrell also warns that there is a drawback to a security freeze, "They can provide a false sense of security." Freezes don't prevent ID thieves from committing social security or tax fraud. They also don't prevent them from stealing and using your existing credit accounts – like credit cards. Credit/Security Freezes only prevent thieves from taking out new credit in your name. It is important to continue to monitor your existing accounts and stay vigilant.
For more information see the FTC's Credit Freeze FAQ's.
NOTE: Do not confuse a "Credit Freeze" with one of the many subscription products offered by the credit bureaus. They are sometime called "Credit Locks" and often require monthly fees. A Credit or Security "Freeze" ("freeze" being the key word) requires a one-time maximum fee of $10 for each bureau – for each freeze and thaw.
CHILD CREDIT FREEZES
Unfortunately, only a handful of states have laws enabling you to add a freeze to your child's credit file - unless they're already a victim of ID theft. This is primarily because most children won't have a credit file to freeze until they start using credit of their own. Unlike the social security numbers that babies are issued at birth, children do not automatically have a credit report or file.
"A child's credit should be frozen at birth, but it's not," O'Farrell points out. Along with most other security experts, O'Farrell believes all parents should have the right to create and freeze their child's credit file before ID thieves have the opportunity to do it for them.
Studies show kids can be more likely to be victimized by identity thieves than their parents are.
For more on Detecting, Repairing and Preventing Child ID Theft, see this ConsumerWatch story.
A few states have passed laws requiring the credit bureaus to allow parents to freeze their child's credit – with or without a file. Check the Credit Freeze laws in your state here.
However, ConsumerWatch reporter Julie Watts found a workaround for parents in states like California, where neither the attorney general nor lawmakers have stepped in to require this protection for kids.
CHILD CREDIT FREEZE STEP 1: Create Your Child's Credit File
After confirming with her bank that that there was no age limit, Watts added her 16 month old daughter as an authorized user on one of her credit cards. This created a credit file – not a report or a score – but a credit file that both Transunion and Experian confirm can be frozen until the toddler is old enough to apply for credit of her own.
NOTE: Some credit card issuers – like AMX - do have age limits for authorized users so you may have to check with several banks.
You may not want to add your child as an authorized user unless you intend to immediately freeze their credit file. It could be easier for ID thieves to open credit in a child's name if they have an un-frozen credit file, then if they have no credit file at all.
CHILD CREDIT FREEZE STEP 2: Freeze Your Child's Credit File
Freezing your child's credit file won't be as easy as freezing your own. You may have to call each of the three bureaus directly and ask for a freeze. Here are the numbers and links to the resources they provide for parents in states with laws requiring security freezes for minors.
Be prepared to provide proof of guardianship and documentation like your child's Birth Certificate or Social Security Card and a Government Issued ID for the Parent/Guardian.
CHILD CREDIT SCORES/REPORTS:
Adding your child as an authorized user to your card does not create a credit report, build credit, or give them a credit score. They won't have any of those things until they are old enough to have loans and a credit card of their own. Adding your child as an authorized user simply creates a credit "file" under their Social Security number with the credit bureaus – which you can now freeze.
For more information on building your child's credit, see this article by NerdWallet.
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