How to Lock Your Credit
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If you’ve ever logged onto your credit card account to see a charge you didn’t make, you may have experienced frustration, anger or even fear about what may come next. Luckily, you have the power to protect yourself through a number of methods including locking and freezing your credit.
“One of the biggest ways fraud can impact your life is by wrecking your credit,” said Matt Schulz, chief industry analyst for LendingTree. “If a bad guy signs up for a card using your information, goes on a spending spree and then never pays his bills, that behavior can appear on your credit report and knock a huge number of points off of your score.”
While the card bureaus will likely remove the fraudulent activity from your credit report if you report the fraud, you may have to jump through a few hoops to get everything cleared up, Schulz added.
In 2019, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) received more than 271,000 reports of credit card fraud from victims who either had their personal information misused on an existing credit card account or it was used to open a new credit card account.
What’s a credit lock?
A credit lock is a way to keep lenders from being able to access your credit. This protects you if a fraudster tries to open an account in your name, as a lender won’t have access to your credit report and cannot grant a new credit line without a credit review. With a credit lock, you have complete control because you can lock and unlock your credit report at will. You might lock your credit:
- If a store you frequent has had a data breach and you don’t know if your personal information was compromised.
- If you have recently had a fraudulent charge made to one of your accounts.
- If you fear someone has gotten a hold of your personal details, such as your Social Security number, and will use that information to open new accounts in your name.
Each of the big three credit bureaus offer services that give you the ability to lock your credit.
- Experian CreditLock lets you lock or unlock your Experian credit file by pressing a button on the CreditLock website.
- Equifax Lock & Alert lets you lock and unlock your Equifax credit report from an app.
- TransUnion Credit Lock Plus lets you control who can see your TransUnion or Equifax credit report from your computer or mobile phone.
Before you decide to use one or more credit lock services, understand that there are benefits and drawbacks to locking your credit.
- You have the convenience of being able to lock and unlock your credit in an instant. For example, say you want the extra security of having your credit locked, but you are in a store and decide to apply for a store credit card. If you have locked your credit, you can easily unlock it from your cellphone and apply for the store credit card.
- You may be able to lock your credit for free. Some credit-locking services come at no cost. TransUnion lets you access Credit Lock for free through its TrueIdentity credit monitoring system. Also, Equifax Lock & Alert is free. But that’s not the case with Experian (see below).
- You may have to pay for the privilege. While TransUnion and Equifax don’t charge you to lock your credit, Experian CreditLock comes as an add-on to identity protection service Experian IdentityWorks Premium, and costs $19.99 per month after a free 30-day trial. If you only use the free credit lock services and don’t lock your credit through Experian, you would be leaving yourself vulnerable if a fraudster opened an account in your name with a lender who checked your credit using Experian.
- Your legal protections are unclear. Any protections you have when using your credit lock service could change over time. That makes it difficult to know what legal protections you have if your credit is breached while you are using the service, the FTC warns.
What’s a credit freeze?
A credit freeze is similar to a credit lock in that it prevents lenders from accessing your credit. However, unlike a credit lock, which lets you instantly grant or deny someone access to your credit, a credit freeze requires you to reach out to the three credit bureaus to ask them to make your credit accessible or inaccessible to others.
As with credit locks, credit freezes have benefits and drawbacks.
- Credit freezes are free. You never have to pay for a credit freeze, thanks to a federal law called the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act that went into effect in 2018.
- You have legal protections. Since credit bureaus must let you freeze your credit by law, if you have your credit frozen and someone manages to access your credit anyway, you have the power of Uncle Sam behind you.
- Unfreezing your credit may require a PIN. You’ll get a PIN code from the credit bureau when you freeze your credit. Experian requires you to provide that number when you want to unfreeze the account. However, Equifax and TransUnion no longer require a PIN to unfreeze your credit. Equifax lets you unfreeze your credit using a username and password. TransUnion allows you to unfreeze it by logging into your account online or via a mobile app, though you will need your PIN if you want to unfreeze your credit via phone.
- You can’t apply for credit impulsively. If you want to apply for a loan, you have to go through the process of unfreezing your credit first, which may not be an instantaneous process, although the credit bureaus are required to unfreeze it within an hour.
How to lock or freeze your credit
You need to weigh the pros and cons of both credit freezes and credit locks to determine which one is right for you. Depending on which you choose, here’s how to go about locking or freezing your credit:
How to lock your credit
Sign up online
Fill out your name, address and Social Security number and date of birth.
At that point, you’ll be able to create your account.
Start your 30-day free trial for Experian IdentityWorks Premium
You’ll need to provide personal information such as your name and address and you’ll need a credit card to sign up. If you cancel the free trial within 30 days you won’t be charged. If not, you will be charged $19.99 per month.
Lock your credit for free by signing up for TrueIdentity and click on “Lock Your Report Here”
Fill out the registration form with name, address, date of birth and Social Security number.
You can also buy Credit Lock Plus, which lets you lock both your TransUnion and Equifax credit reports for $24.95 per month.
How to freeze your credit
To freeze your credit online, go to Equifax.com
There you can place a freeze and manage it.
To freeze your credit online go to Experian.com
There you can freeze your credit, get a PIN code and request that the freeze be lifted or request a creditor be given one-time access to your credit file.
To freeze your credit online, go to TransUnion.com
There you can freeze or unfreeze your credit, or freeze that of a loved one such as a child or parent.
Both locking and freezing your credit can help keep lenders out of your credit report and protect you from fraudsters. “Even if you don’t think you’ve been a victim of fraud, a credit freeze or lock can be a very good idea,” said Schulz. “It won’t keep bad guys from using already established cards, but it should keep them from opening new cards and other accounts in your name, and that’s where a lot of the biggest damage can be done.”