These days, it seems as if every time you read the news, there's been another data breach. Listing all of the recent breaches would take far too long, but rest assured that if you use credit, shop at popular stores, or have used a ride-sharing service or a fitness app, chances are good that your information has been in the database of at least one company that's been breached. 

If you assume that at least some of your information has fallen into the wrong hands, the question is: What should you do about it? Checking your credit on a regular basis is one option, but this will only alert you to a problem after it occurs. The good news is, there is a proactive step you can take to protect your information from being misused: You can freeze your credit. The bad news is, it isn't a hassle-free process. 

To find out more about how freezing your credit works and why you might want to do it, read on. 

Credit cards

Image source: Getty Images.

What does it mean to freeze your credit?

Freezing your credit involves contacting the credit reporting bureaus -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- and locking down your credit report.

When you put a security freeze on your credit, you tell the credit reporting bureaus not to give anyone your information. This includes credit card companies, banks, and even utility companies. In the majority of states, this freeze remains in effect indefinitely, although in some states it does expire -- typically after about seven years. 

A freeze on your credit report is one of the most effective ways to prevent personal information from being misused because of the way we apply for credit in the U.S. When you apply for credit, the prospective lender checks your credit report to find out your borrowing history and credit score. If you've frozen your credit, lenders won't be allowed access to information necessary to decide whether to grant a loan, so they won't approve any new credit in your name. 

A security freeze won't affect existing credit accounts. If someone gets your credit card number and charges a fortune, the credit freeze won't stop them. Your credit information also remains available to existing lenders, including for use in debt collection. 

But, if thieves try to use your Social Security number to get a new credit card or take out a loan, they'll be thwarted when whomever they're trying to borrow from can't access your credit report.

What are the pros and cons of freezing your credit?

The biggest benefit of freezing your credit is that it provides very strong protection against information being misused. Thieves simply cannot acquire credit in your name because lenders can't access credit information.

A freeze provides stronger protection than a fraud alert. When you've placed a fraud alert on your report, your information is made available to lenders after the credit bureau takes steps to verify your identity. And, while monitoring your credit is reactive -- you find out about problems when something posts on your report -- a freeze prevents unauthorized accounts from being opened in the first place. 

There are a couple of big downsides, though.

First, there's often a cost associated with freezing your credit, although fees aren't charged everywhere. According to Value Penguin, there's no fee charged for credit freezes in seven states. In the remaining states, fees range from $9 to $31.15. However, if you have proof you've been victimized by identity theft, you can usually get fees waived. 

The other problem is, when your credit is frozen, your report won't be accessible if you need someone to see it. If you try to rent an apartment, get a new credit card or loan, set up utilities, or do anything else that requires a credit check, you'll be thwarted until you unfreeze your credit. And, to temporarily unfreeze it, there's another fee to pay in all but eight states. 

When you pay to lift the freeze, credit reporting bureaus have three business days to act, so there could be a delay before information is available. If you need your credit checked for a job opportunity or to get your electricity turned on when you move, this could be a problem -- but you can overcome it by anticipating that your credit will be checked and initiating a temporary lift of the freeze several days beforehand. 

How can you freeze your credit?

To freeze your credit, you'll need to contact each of the major credit reporting bureaus. You can do so by using the following links or telephone numbers for each of the three major credit reporting bureaus: 

You'll have to provide your identifying personal information, including your Social Security number. Once you've submitted your request and paid the fee, the credit reporting bureau will send you a confirmation letter in the mail. This letter will contain a PIN you'll need to unfreeze your credit later, so don't lose it. 

Should you freeze your credit?

Freezing your credit makes sense if you know you've been vulnerable to a data breach, you won't be applying for new credit any time soon, and you want the ultimate protection from identity theft. If you don't feel like being vigilant about monitoring your credit reports, freezing your credit is a simple one-time solution.

Just be aware of the cost -- and the fact you'll need time and possibly money to temporarily lift the freeze if you need a credit check. But this may be a small price to pay for the peace of mind of knowing your credit report is locked down tight.