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Freeze Your Credit in 3 Steps

Freezing your accounts at the three major credit bureaus is the best way to prevent thieves from opening new credit accounts in your name.

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Not so long ago, a credit freeze was a tool usually reserved for people who had suffered identity theft. But as data breaches have piled up -- culminating with the massive data breach at credit agency Equifax announced in September -- the freeze has become more widely recognized as the most effective way to protect your credit, even if a thief hasn't yet made fraudulent use of your personal information.

SEE ALSO: The Equifax Data Breach: What You Should Do

The reason: When you place a credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) on your credit reports, new creditors can't review them to judge whether you're eligible for a credit card or loan -- and in turn, lenders are unlikely to grant credit to fraudsters posing as you. When you need to shop for credit, you can temporarily lift the freeze.

What's the downside? Unless you have a police report proving you were a victim of ID theft, in most states you'll have to pay (at each bureau) to impose a freeze as well as when you need to lift it. (Equifax is waiving fees to add and lift freezes until the end of January.)

To set up a credit freeze, take these three steps.

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1. Gather your information. At a minimum, you'll have to supply identifying information such as your Social Security number, birth date and address. If you haven't lived at your current home for more than a couple of years, you may need to have your previous address on hand, too.

You must provide a PIN when you want to temporarily lift or permanently remove a freeze. Equifax formulates the PIN for you whether you go online or call to place a freeze. Experian generates the PIN and mails it to you if you set up a freeze by phone, but you have the option to create a PIN of your choice if you place the freeze on its website. TransUnion requires you to create your own PIN whether you place a freeze by phone or online. Think about the number you'd like to use -- and don't pick something obvious, such as your birth date. Keep a pen and paper handy to jot down your PINs.

Have your credit-card number at the ready. In many states, you'll pay a fee of $5 to $10 to place a credit freeze if you have not been an identity-theft victim (and you'll often be charged to lift the freeze, too).

If you are a victim of identity theft, you don't have to pay for the freeze. But you will have to send each agency a police report or other valid documentation of fraud, plus proof of your identity, such as copies of your driver's license, birth certificate or bills displaying your current address.

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2. Contact each credit agency. The web pages or phone numbers below are the quickest avenues to imposing a freeze. To submit your request by mail, use these addresses (identity-theft victims may have to use snail mail to send documentation).

Freeze your credit with Equifax
Equifax Security Freeze
P.O. Box 105788
Atlanta, GA 30348
800-685-1111

Freeze your credit with Experian
Experian Security Freeze
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
888-397-3742

Or ID theft victims can submit documents here.

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Freeze your credit with TransUnion
TransUnion LLC
P.O. Box 2000
Chester, PA 19016
888-909-8872

3. Save your PINs. Write down the PINs, and keep them in a safe place at home. When you're ready to shop for a loan or lift the freeze for any other reason, you can call the phone numbers or visit the websites listed above. (An exception: Go here to lift an Experian freeze online.)

SEE ALSO: How I Thwarted ID Thieves

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