If you worry that scammers could open credit card accounts or loans in your name, credit freezes and credit locks can help.
Here’s why. When scammers open new credit card accounts in your name, they can run up thousands of dollars of purchases, leaving you with credit card debt that shows up on your credit reports. If they don’t pay these credit card purchases — and they almost certainly won’t — these missed payments will drag down your three-digit credit scores.
Other scammers might open loans in your name and not pay them back, something that will also show up on your credit reports and will send your three-digit credit score plummeting.
You can help protect yourself against this form of identity theft by signing up for either a credit freeze or credit lock of your credit reports. Freezes and locks can both help prevent scammers from opening accounts and taking out loans in your name. But they come with important differences, too.
A credit freeze is free but is more difficult to undo. Some credit locks may require a fee, but it’s typically easier to unlock your credit than it is to unfreeze it.
Which is the right choice for you? Either will work to provide an extra layer of protection from scammers hoping to steal your identity. The choice comes down to money versus convenience.
Comparing credit freezes and credit locks
What are the big differences between credit freezes and credit locks? Let’s compare.
- What it costs: Free from each of the three national credit bureaus.
- What it does: Lenders and the providers of credit can’t access your credit reports, meaning that no one else can qualify for loans or credit cards in your name.
- Ease of use: You must contact each bureau to freeze your reports. You must contact them again, using a PIN, to unlock the reports when you want to apply for credit or loans.
- What it costs: TransUnion Credit Lock Plus —$29.95 a month; Experian CreditLock — free for 30 days, $19.99 a month thereafter; Equifax — free.
- What it does: It works much like a credit freeze. Your credit will be locked to lenders and credit providers unless you unlock your reports. This keeps others from taking out loans or credit card accounts in your name.
- Ease of use: You must contact each bureau to lock your credit. Unlocking your credit, though, is easier. You can do it through mobile apps that speed up the process.
What is a credit freeze?
It’s smart to freeze your credit. When you do, lenders can’t access your credit reports unless you give the three credit bureaus your permission to unfreeze the reports.
It makes sense to keep your credit reports frozen until you actually need to apply for a mortgage, credit card, auto loan, or other loan. If you don’t unfreeze your credit, lenders won’t be able to review your credit history, and they won’t be able to approve you for a loan. This can help protect you against identity theft: Even if scammers attempt to take out a loan or open a credit card account in your name, their efforts will be thwarted when lenders can’t access your credit reports.
When should you freeze your credit?
You should freeze your credit if you believe you’ve been the victim of identity theft or if your personal or financial information has been exposed in a data breach. Freezing your credit can help keep predators from opening new accounts in your name.
But this isn’t the only time you should consider a credit freeze. If you want to constantly protect yourself from identity theft, you should always keep your credit frozen unless you are actively applying for a new credit card or loan. When you are applying for new credit or debt, you can unfreeze your credit temporarily.
Make sure, though, that you freeze your credit at all three credit bureaus. Freezing at one bureau only, will leave you unprotected. Make sure, then, to order freezes at Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion.
How do you freeze your credit?
When you freeze your credit, the bureaus will provide you with a PIN that you use to freeze and unfreeze your credit. Don’t lose that number. You'll need it if you want to unfreeze your credit when applying for a new credit card, car loan, mortgage, or other form of revolving debt.
Note, though, that Equifax, unlike the other two credit bureaus, no longer requires you to enter a PIN when freezing or unfreezing your credit.
- Experian: You can start your Experian freeze either online or by calling the bureau at 888-397-3742.
- TransUnion: Start a TransUnion freeze online or by calling 888-909-8872.
- Equifax: You can freeze your credit with Equifax online or by calling 888-298-0045.
What is a credit lock?
A credit lock works the same way as a freeze: It prevents lenders from accessing your credit reports. This will protect you if someone tries to open a credit card account or take out a loan in your name. Again, if lenders can’t access your credit reports, they can’t complete a loan or credit application initiated by a scammer.
You will have to unlock your credit if you want to apply for a loan or credit card account. If you don't, lenders won't be able to access your credit reports and won't approve your credit or loan application. You can then lock your credit again after you are done applying for your new credit account or loan.
The difference between a credit lock or freeze? Locks are offered as services by the three national credit bureaus of Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. This means that you might have to pay if you want your credit locked at all three bureaus.
And you will have to lock your credit at all three bureaus. Locking your credit at only one or two bureaus won’t provide you complete protection against identity thieves.
The difference with credit locks, though, is that they are easier to manage. Once you sign up with the credit bureaus, you can access your lock through mobile apps. You can then quickly lock or unlock your credit through this app.
When should you use a credit lock?
As with credit freezes, keep your credit locked whenever you aren’t actively applying for a new loan or line of credit. This process is even easier with a credit lock: The bureaus make it easy to lock and unlock your credit quickly.
Here’s a quick tip: You don’t need to both freeze and lock your credit. Pick one or the other.
How do you lock your credit?
You’ll need to contact the three credit bureaus directly to initiate a credit lock.
- TransUnion: You can sign up with TransUnion’s credit lock services here.
- Experian: Sign up for Experian’s credit lock service here.
- Equifax: You can register for Equifax’s credit lock services here.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
You might have questions about credit locks and credit freezes. Here are answers to some the most common questions.
Should you lock or freeze your credit?
Yes. When you freeze or lock your credit, lenders or credit card providers can’t access your credit reports and can’t approve you for new loans or credit cards. Scammers who steal your identity, then, will run into a roadblock if they try to take out loans or credit cards in your name: When lenders can’t access your reports, they’ll reject these fraudulent applications.
What’s better, credit freezes or credit locks?
This depends on what you value most. Credit freezes are always free. Credit locks, depending on the credit bureau, usually come with a fee. It’s easier, though, to manage credit locks than it is to freeze and unfreeze your credit. It comes down to whether convenience or cost is more important to you.
How much does a credit freeze cost?
There is never a charge to freeze your credit. This is a free service.
How long does a credit freeze last?
A credit freeze remains active until you ask the credit bureaus to remove it. According to the FTC, if you request that your credit be unfrozen online or by phone, the bureaus must lift your freeze within an hour. Many consumers lift freezes temporarily when they are applying for new credit or loans.
How long does it take for a freeze to go into effect?
Different states have different regulations regarding security freezes. In California, the credit bureaus are required to freeze your credit no later than three days after receiving your request. In New Hampshire, the bureaus must freeze your credit within five business days of receiving your request. In New Jersey, that time limit is again three days.
Will a credit freeze affect your credit score?
A credit freeze will have no impact on your credit score. It also won’t stop you from ordering your free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com.
How much does a credit lock cost?
The cost of a credit lock varies depending on the credit bureau. Prices can range from about $20 to $30 per month.
How long does a credit lock last?
As with a credit freeze, your credit lock will remain until you ask the credit bureaus to remove it, either temporarily or permanently. For the best protection, keep your credit lock in place until you are ready to apply for a credit card or loan. You can then contact the credit bureaus to temporarily unlock your credit. The difference between a lock and freeze, is that you can manage your credit lock through apps provided by the credit bureaus. You can then lock and unlock your credit reports by using identification techniques as passwords, usernames, touch ID technology, or face ID tech. You won't have to log into the bureaus' websites to turn locks on or off.
Will a credit lock hurt your credit score?
Locking your credit will not help or hurt your credit score. You can also access your free credit reports from AnnualCreditReport.com even if you’ve locked your credit.
The bottom line
Freezing or locking your credit both have the same result: You’ll create an extra layer of protection between you and identity thieves. Freezes and locks, though, won’t eliminate all cybercrimes. They won’t protect you if a cybercriminal gains access to your credit card accounts or bank accounts. These thieves can still drain these accounts and run up charges even if your credit reports are frozen or locked.
The lesson here? Freeze or lock your credit. But don’t be lulled into a false sense of security. You’ll still need to check your credit card statements and bank accounts to look for suspicious charges or withdrawals.
Help protect against identity thieves with credit lock
Criminals can steal your identity to open credit cards, bank accounts or utilities in your name. With a single click, Identity Lock lets you lock your TransUnion credit file to help protect against identity thieves from opening accounts in your name.