Have you ever worried about becoming a victim of identity theft? It‘s a frightening prospect – someone could steal your personal information and fraudulently open credit cards or loans in your name. The resulting financial damage and stress can be enormous.
Luckily, you have the power to protect yourself by restricting access to your credit reports. Credit locks and credit freezes are two options that prevent thieves from being able to check your credit when applying for new accounts.
But should you lock or freeze your credit? While the end goal is the same, these two identity theft prevention tools differ in some key ways.
In this detailed guide, we’ll cover everything you need to know about credit locks versus credit freezes, including:
- Exactly how both work to block fraudulent accounts
- The most important differences between them
- Step-by-step instructions for placing a lock and freeze
- Pros and cons of each method
- Which option may be right for your situation
By the end, you’ll thoroughly understand locks vs. freezes. You’ll be able to make the choice that best fits your needs and locks down your credit from identity thieves. Let‘s dive in!
The growing threat of identity theft
To understand why credit locks and freezes are so important, let‘s look at some statistics on identity theft:
- 1 in 15 Americans were victimized by identity theft in 2021, affecting over 50 million people. (Javelin Research)
- The number of identity theft reports increased 63% from 2019 to 2021 as the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated fraud. (Federal Trade Commission)
- Credit card fraud accounts for over 25% of ID theft incidents, while bank fraud (new accounts) makes up 13%. (FTC)
- The average lost time for victims dealing with identity theft is 15 hours and it can take over 6 months to fully resolve cases. (Javelin)
As you can see, identity thieves are busier than ever opening fraudulent credit cards and draining bank accounts. But credit locks and freezes fight back, stopping thieves in their tracks.
Next let‘s look at exactly how locks and freezes work to block identity theft.
How Credit Locks and Freezes Prevent Identity Theft
Your credit reports contain information like your payment history and current debts. Lenders review these reports when you apply for new credit, to help decide if you‘re creditworthy.
Identity thieves can exploit this system by checking your report fraudulently when opening accounts in your name.
Both credit locks and credit freezes stop this from happening by restricting access to your credit reports and scores:
Credit lock – Locking your credit prevents new credit checks without your permission. You control the lock and can instantly unlock it temporarily when you want lenders to check your report. The three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – offer lock services.
Credit freeze – Freezing your credit completely blocks all access to your credit reports unless you unfreeze it. Credit bureaus are required by federal law to offer freeze services. You‘ll be given a PIN code to unlock the freeze when needed.
While their mechanisms differ, in both cases thieves are unable to check your credit and open new fraudulent accounts. But locks and freezes have some important differences you should understand.
Key Differences Between Credit Locks and Freezes
Although locks and freezes achieve the same end result, they operate differently in a few key ways:
|Credit Lock||Credit Freeze|
|Cost||$0 – $25/month||Free|
|Activation speed||Instant||Within 24 hours by law|
|Removal speed||Instant||Within 1 hour by law|
|Legal protections||None||Extensive laws regulate freezes|
Let‘s examine these differences in more detail:
Cost – Credit bureaus charge monthly fees for locking services, typically $24.99/month. Equifax and TransUnion offer free basic locks only if you purchase a subscription identity theft protection plan.
In contrast, federal law under the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires credit freezes to be completely free at all three major credit bureaus.
Activation speed – A major advantage of credit locks is you can enable and disable them instantly using a smartphone app or online account dashboard.
With credit freezes, you must contact each bureau and go through an identity verification process. By law, they must put the freeze in place within 24 business hours of your request.
Removal speed – Similarly, you can remove a lock immediately whenever you need access to your credit. The credit bureaus must lift a freeze within one hour upon request according to federal regulations.
Legal protections – Credit freezes are governed under both federal and state laws that provide extensive consumer rights and protections:
- Credit bureaus face penalties for failing to comply with freeze timing and disclosure requirements
- Consumers can sue for damages like reimbursement for identity theft losses
- All consumers are entitled to freezes regardless of state laws
Because they are voluntary services, credit locks do not come with these legal rights and regulations.
Below we‘ll provide step-by-step instructions for placing both locks and freezes to stop identity thieves.
How to Place a Credit Lock
To lock your credit, you‘ll need to sign up for a service with Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. Here are direct links to start the process with each bureau:
With Equifax and TransUnion, you can get a free basic credit lock when you register for an account. For Experian CreditLock, you‘ll need to purchase a paid subscription.
Once registered, follow these steps to enable a credit lock with each bureau:
- Download the credit bureau‘s app on your smartphone.
- Login with your username and password.
- Find the lock/unlock switch and toggle it on.
That‘s all there is to it! With the app, you can then instantly lock or unlock access to your credit reports anytime.
Next we‘ll go over how to place a credit freeze.
Placing a Credit Freeze
Freezing your credit takes a few more steps because you have to contact each credit bureau directly. Here is the process:
- Request a freeze online or by phone with Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion (contact info below)
- Provide personal information like your SSN, name, and address to confirm your identity
- Each bureau will provide you with a unique PIN code. Keep this in a safe place.
- The freeze should be in effect within 24 hours.
- Check your status online or via phone to confirm the freeze is active with each bureau.
Credit Bureau Contact Info:
- Equifax: 1-800-349-9960, Equifax.com
- Experian: 1-888-397-3742, Experian.com
- TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872, TransUnion.com
You‘ll need to separately contact each of the three major credit bureaus to freeze your credit comprehensively. But it provides strong protection against new fraudulent accounts.
Removing a Credit Freeze or Lock
When you need to unlock your credit, either for legitimate applications or because identity theft risks have passed, here is the process:
Removing a credit lock – Simply open your credit lock app or login to the online account. Toggle the switch to unlocked. It will update in real time.
Removing a credit freeze – Contact each credit bureau online or by phone. Provide your PIN code and/or other personal info to confirm your identity.
By law, the credit bureaus must lift a freeze within one hour of your request. In reality, it is usually removed much more quickly.
You can also opt to permanently remove a credit freeze if you decide you no longer need it.
Should I Choose a Credit Lock or Freeze?
Now that you understand the key differences in locks versus freezes, how do you decide which is right for you? Here are a few examples of situations where one may be preferable over the other:
- Active credit applications – Since you can instantly unlock it, a credit lock may be less inconvenient when you need to open new accounts periodically.
- Infrequent credit applications – If you rarely need to unlock your credit, a freeze provides maximum regulated security.
- Victim of a data breach – Freezes deliver the strongest legal shield if your info is exposed.
- Planning to move – With a freeze, you‘ll need to contact each bureau and update your address. A lock may be easier to manage.
- Elderly – For seniors less comfortable with apps and technology, freezes controlled by phone may be simpler than managing locks.
- Minors – Freezes provide the greatest protection for a child‘s unused credit reports.
While locks offer greater convenience and freezes stronger formal protections, either choice is smart. Just remember you must place a lock or freeze with Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion to be fully protected.
Limitations of Credit Locks and Freezes
While extremely helpful, a few words of caution about locks and freezes:
- They only affect new credit applications, not existing accounts.
- Completely preventing identity theft also requires vigilance like monitoring statements.
- If your personal info is exposed, a thief could still potentially open non-credit accounts like a phone plan.
- You will need to plan ahead and unlock when applying for your own new credit.
Even with these limitations, locks and freezes provide a meaningful barrier against the most common and damaging forms of identity theft.
Additional Ways to Prevent Identity Theft
While locks and freezes restrict new credit accounts, you can further enhance your protection with these tips:
- Check your credit reports from each bureau annually for any fraud at www.annualcreditreport.com
- Sign up for credit monitoring services to receive alerts if new accounts are opened
- Place a free fraud alert on your credit to require additional verification for new credit
- Monitor financial account statements closely for unauthorized charges
- Avoid unsecured public WiFi networks which can expose your info
Together with sound data security habits, credit locks and freezes help block the majority of identity theft. Now it‘s time to summarize everything we‘ve covered.
Credit Locks and Freezes: Which Is Right for You?
Identity theft can happen to anyone, but locks and freezes make you much less vulnerable:
- Credit locks allow instant locking and unlocking of your credit reports through an app. Locks typically cost a monthly fee.
- Credit freezes completely block access to your credit reports unless you unfreeze them. Freezes are guaranteed free by law.
While locks offer greater convenience, freezes provide stronger legal protections. Evaluate your personal situation to decide if instant but paid locking or regulated freezing better fits your needs.
Whichever you choose, be sure to enact a lock or freeze with Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. This blocks thieves across all three major bureaus.
Don‘t wait until you become the next victim! This guide has equipped you to lock down your credit and reduce risks. Consult it whenever you need a refresher on exactly how credit locks and freezes keep fraudsters away from your hard-earned money.
- Federal Trade Commission: Free Credit Freezes and Fraud Alerts
- Consumer Financial Protection Bureau: The difference between credit monitoring and credit freezes – and why that matters
- Javelin 2022 Identity Fraud Study: Fraud statistics overview