Credit Lock vs. Credit Freeze: Which Should You Use?
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It seems like every other day there are reports of a new data breach.
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, the number of U.S. data breaches in 2017 rose nearly 45% year over year, setting a new all-time high. The findings reported more than eight times the number of Social Security numbers — key information fraudsters generally need to apply for new credit accounts — were exposed in 2017 than in 2016.
No doubt contributing to those statistics was a September 2017 announcement from credit reporting agency Equifax. The company revealed hackers had exposed the personal information (including Social Security numbers, birth dates, addresses and driver’s license numbers) of about 143 million consumers and the credit card data of another 209,000 consumers.
In part, the Equifax breach helped make terms like “credit lock” and “credit freeze” widely known, as the public debated the ethics of charging fees for consumer protections.
Although these consumer protections are similar, they are not the same. In a nutshell, credit locks are easier to apply and remove but that flexibility may cost a consumer monthly fees. A credit freeze is free and offers legal protections that a credit lock does not.
Read on to learn about the differences between a credit freeze and credit lock and how to decide which protection best fits your needs.
Credit lock vs. Credit Freeze: Key differences
A credit lock and a credit freeze do the same thing: They are consumer protections that restrict access to your credit file, making it more difficult for fraudsters to open new accounts in your name. If someone applies for credit in your name without first unlocking your report or lifting the credit freeze, the lender will not be able to gain access to the file to verify your credit score, if needed, to approve the account opening.
Different lenders may pull your credit file from different bureaus. For that reason, it’s recommended that you place a lock or credit freeze on your report separately with all three credit reporting agencies — Equifax, TransUnion and Experian — for the protections to be most effective.
Here’s a look at key differences between a credit lock and credit freeze.
|Credit Lock vs. Credit Freeze|
|Credit Lock||Credit Freeze|
|Legal Protections||Use at your own risk||Guaranteed by federal law|
|When to use||When you want to restrict access to your credit file||When you want to restrict access to your credit file|
|Fees||● Equifax: Free
● TransUnion: Free
● Experian: Starting at $19.99/month with IdentityWorks membership
|Free to place, temporarily lift and permanently unfreeze a credit report with every bureau as of Sept. 21, 2018|
|Turning on and off||● Online or through the apps only
● No PIN required
|Online (PIN required)
By phone (PIN required)
● Equifax: 1-800-685-1111 (1-800-349-9960 for New York residents)
● Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (1-888-397-3742). Press 2.
● TransUnion: 1-888-909-8872
● Equifax: Equifax Security Freeze/P.O. Box 105788/Atlanta, GA 30348
● Experian: Experian Security Freeze/P.O. Box 9554/Allen, TX 75013
● TransUnion: TransUnion LLC/P.O. Box 2000/Chester, PA 19016
|Apps||● TrueIdentity app by TransUnion
● Lock & Alert by Equifax
● IdentityWorks by Experian
Cost: Not all credit locks are free, but all credit freezes are
Thanks to a law Congress passed in response to the Equifax breach, you can now freeze, temporarily lift and permanently unfreeze your credit report with all three credit bureaus at no cost.
“Freezes are now free and it’s not an economic decision for people,” said Eva Casey Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Resource Center. “Economics aren’t a factor anymore. It’s a free, proactive consumer protection that you are entitled to by law, take advantage of it. We strongly suggest that [consumers] consider it.”
Locking your credit file with TransUnion or Equifax is free. Equifax offers a credit lock through a free product called Lock & Alert. TransUnion offers free credit locks and other identity theft protection features through its TrueIdentity program.
But if you want to be able to lock or unlock your Experian credit file, you’ll need to be enrolled in one of the bureau’s IdentityWorks programs, which will cost you a monthly fee. Individuals are billed $9.99 a month for Experian IdentityWorks Plus or $19.99 per month for Experian IdentityWorks Premium. In addition to credit lock, the programs include other identity theft protection and monitoring features. There are also family plans available.
Scope of protection: Credit freezes are government-mandated
Credit freezes are guaranteed by federal law. On the other hand, the bureaus are sure to include in the terms and conditions that apply to each of their credit lock products that they do not guarantee error-free operation or uninterrupted services. If you elect to use the credit locking services, you will be using them at your own risk.
“Locks are so new. We don’t have a lot of information about the inner workings of them and I’m not sure that we ever will,” said Velasquez.
She added that the credit freeze is mandated by legislation: “There is a legislative framework around how the credit freeze is supposed to work.”
Velazquez also noted that because the credit lock is a service voluntarily provided by a company, there’s “no guarantee that the service will exist in perpetuity” or that it will be free with TransUnion and Equifax forever.
Application and removal: Credit lock is more simplified, but not that much simpler
You can apply for a credit freeze online, over the phone or by mail. If you go online, you will create a password protected account. You’ll generally need to set up a PIN number the first time you freeze your credit and will need to know that PIN to temporarily thaw or permanently unfreeze your credit file. If you use the online option with Equifax, you won’t need to create or use a PIN.
Velasquez also noted the importance of understanding the difference between thawing your file and lifting a freeze. A thaw is generally temporary; it lasts for a specific period of time, and does not require your action to reinstate the freeze after the period ends. A lift is usually for an indefinite period, and will require you to take action to reinstate the freeze when you are ready.
All three bureaus offer apps you can use to unlock or lock your credit file. You can also lock and unlock your credit file online, by signing up for an account on their respective websites.
Time to take effect: The credit freeze takes longer
When you lock or unlock your credit, the protection can take effect within a few minutes. Comparatively, a credit freeze takes longer to take effect. Under the new law, a credit bureau must notify a customer of the placement or removal of the freeze within one business day if the request was made online or over the phone and within three business days if the request was made by mail.
“The ability to unlock and lock your credit immediately from your phone that’s pretty convenient and a lot of people want that convenience,” said Velasquez.
However, for those who opt for the federally guaranteed protection, she added, “they have made the process for freezes much more seamless in practice.”
In her work with consumers, she said some are surprised at how simple and quick the credit freeze process actually is.
“For some reason people think it’s daunting, the whole process of freezing your credit,” said Velasquez. “It’s tedious and certainly not very fun, but get it done.” She said the entire process of freezing your credit report with all three bureaus takes about 30 minutes if you do it online.
To be more efficient and proactive about your time, Velasquez recommended asking which credit bureau the lender you’re intending to apply with will use. That way, you don’t waste time freezing and unfreezing your file with all three bureaus when you may only need to do so for one.
Deciding between a credit lock and a credit freeze
Ultimately, your decision to lock or freeze your credit file will come down to the level of guarantee and convenience you’d like to have when it comes to applying and removing the restriction. If you have questions about the process, you can visit the credit freeze pages for each individual bureau or use the resources found through nonprofit consumer help organizations, like the Identity Theft Resource Center
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