A credit freeze--also called a security freeze--is a very effective way to protect yourself against identity theft. However, the process can be confusing because the cost and process vary from state to state and among the three major credit bureaus. A credit freeze will remain in effect until you choose it lift it yourself, either temporarily or permanently, unless you live in a state that limits the freeze to seven years. You just need to know how to do the initial freeze with each credit bureau. Once that's done, it will remain in effect as long as you wish.
A credit freeze means that your credit bureau information cannot be accessed unless you specifically authorize it with a password or personal identification number when you want to apply for a credit card or loan. A freeze protects you from identity theft, since thieves won't typically know the password. The freeze will keep them from opening any accounts in your name.
According to consumer advocate Clark Howard, the cost of a credit freeze varies depending on the credit bureau and your state of residence. It usually runs from $3 to $10, although it may be free if you are already a victim of identity theft. Once you do the freeze, it will last until you "thaw" it, either temporarily or permanently. You may be charged a fee each time you thaw it if you do so temporarily.
Each of the three credit bureaus has its own process for doing a credit freeze. A freeze for Equifax should be done via certified mail with a return receipt requested. TransUnion allows you to do a freeze online, over the phone or by mail, and Experian allows you to do a freeze online or by mail. Exact details for the process can be found on each credit bureau's website (see Resources). Once you follow the correct process for each bureau, your freeze will be in place.
In most cases, a credit freeze is permanent unless you choose to remove it yourself. In some states, it will only stay in effect for seven years. If you live in one of those states, you can renew the freeze after the seven-year period.
In certain states, credit freezes used to be available only to victims of identity theft. However, as of 2009 the three major credit bureaus offer a freeze to anyone who wants one. You simply have to follow the correct process for each individual bureau and pay any required fee.