You should probably do this no matter what.

Freezing your credit is a simple, inexpensive way to help keep your identity safe. With massive data breaches now simply a fact of life this is a concern for everyone short of Ron Swanson. Whether you've actually been targeted by a hack or are just concerned about security in general, here's what you should know about freezing your credit.

What Is a Credit Freeze?

Also known as a "security freeze," a credit freeze locks access to your credit report. When you request a credit freeze you receive credentials for your account. From that point until you lift the freeze each time someone tries to access your records the credit bureau will hold their request pending your authorization.

If you don't provide the PIN or password the credit bureau won't let them see your credit report.

Why Freeze Your Credit?

A credit freeze stops someone else from taking out new loans in your name. When lenders like banks or credit card companies open up a new line of credit they first run a check on your credit history. If the account is frozen they can't proceed and won't process the transaction.

As credit checks of become an increasingly common part of life, this doesn't just apply to loans anymore. Cell phone companies, apartment rentals, even job applications increasingly ask for credit checks. With a credit freeze in place you can make sure that you're the only person filling out any of that paperwork in your name.

This has become a particularly acute issue as rates of identity theft have soared in the internet era. Where once thieves had to actually put their hands on paperwork to steal your information, today someone can get hold of your entire life story while binge watching "Rick and Morty." In a handful of years alone thieves stole over $107 billion through forged identities. More than 17 million Americans are targeted by some form of identity theft each year costing each of them an average $1,300 in personal losses, to say nothing of time, trouble and even reputation damage in the process.

While not a bulletproof solution to identity theft, a credit freeze can help keep you safe from illegitimate debt.

When Should You Freeze Your Credit?

First, you should freeze your credit if you ever have specific reason to fear financial identity theft. If your records were part of a data breach, say, or if you've had sensitive documents stolen, you should consider a credit freeze.

This writer, for example, had his laptop stolen at a Starbucks (SBUX) once. With all of my tax documents on it, identity theft went from a possibility to a very serious concern. I've had a freeze on all lines of credit ever since.

Second, there are many people who argue that everyone should simply freeze their credit as a matter of course. Although freezing your credit slows down applications and processing times, it can be a useful safety measure and won't cost you a thing. As long as you don't mind waiting a little longer for your new cell phone, a lifetime freeze on your credit is probably a smart move.

How Credit Freezes Work

You contact all three credit bureaus individually and follow their process for freezing your credit. You set up contact information and a PIN or login.

Then, each time you apply for anything that involves a credit check, you contact the credit bureaus to temporarily lift the freeze.

Officially when you request that a credit bureau lift the freeze online or by phone they are required to respond within one hour. Often the system works that way. Signing new contracts or taking out a new credit card will involve the extra step of authorizing it with the credit bureau, but nothing more onerous than that.

However, you should be prepared for some slowdowns. Sometimes lifting a credit freeze can be difficult, particularly if you've misplaced any of your passwords or PINs. In that case the process can take several days and anything you want to do that involves a credit check will slow down.

How to Freeze Your Credit

Since a law passed in 2018 it costs nothing to freeze or unfreeze your credit. Here is the process for each of the three credit bureaus. If you freeze any credit reports you should freeze all three, as some lenders only check certain agencies.

Equifax

You can freeze your credit through the appropriate page on the Equifax (EFX)   website,  or by calling their customer service line at 1-800-685-1111.

You can lift a freeze temporarily or permanently through this same portal, by calling their customer service number or by mail at Equifax Security Freeze / P.O. Box 105788 / Atlanta, GA 30348. To lift your freeze online you will need your login credentials. To lift it by telephone or mail you will need the PIN you set up with your account.

Experian

Visit Experian's (EXPGY)  website here or call their customer service number at 1-888-397-3742 to freeze your credit.

To lift your freeze temporarily or permanently you will need the PIN you set up with this account. You can do this through their website or by telephone.

TransUnion

Visit TransUnion's website here or call their customer service number at 1-888-909-8872 to freeze your credit.

TransUnion (TRU) processes most freeze lifts, both permanent and temporary, through its website. If you need additional assistance you can call their customer service number.

Both Experian and TransUnion offer the option to lift your freeze for a certain amount of time or for certain creditors. In the latter case they will provide you with one-use PIN's that creditors provide in order to get access to your account.

Fraud Alerts and Credit Locks

There are two final options you should be aware of. In addition to a credit freeze, you can also request fraud alerts and credit locks. They are slightly different forms of fraud protection.

• Fraud Alerts

A fraud alert is a notice in your credit report that you may have had your identity stolen or otherwise been the victim of fraud.

The alert can last for between 90 days and seven years. Once in place, a lender will take steps to confirm your identity before issuing a new line of credit. Typically, this involves them calling your preferred contact number to confirm that you've authorized the application for credit.

To set a fraud alert, contact the credit bureaus through the phone numbers above. Once you set a fraud alert with one credit agency it will notify the other two.

• Credit Locks

A credit lock works in much the same way as a credit freeze. It restricts access to your credit report until you authorize the release of that information, creating a safeguard against unauthorized applications for credit. Unlike a credit freeze, however, it is easier to lift a credit lock. You can do so through an app or with nothing more than your user name and password on a credit bureau's website.

A credit lock is designed to be more convenient than a credit freeze, but it is also less secure. It comes with fewer legal protections and in the case of Experian has a monthly fee. As a general rule consumers should use a credit freeze as the preferred method of security.

The Limits of Credit Freezes

A credit freeze won't protect you from most forms of non-financial identity theft. It won't stop someone from throwing around your Social Security number, won't stop them from filing your taxes, won't stop them from opening social media accounts in your name or any other of a number of problems.

This is a financial fix only, but it's a good one.