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Differences Between Credit Locks and Credit Freezes


Oct. 08, 2019

The differences between credit locks, credit freezes, and fraud alerts
Credit locks, credit freezes, and fraud alerts can help you stop someone who tries to use your personal information to fraudulently open an account in your name. Federal law requires each of the three major US credit bureaus to offer free credit freezes (the stronger form of protection) and free fraud alerts. The agencies offer credit locks as optional services, which may cost you a monthly fee.
With Equifax and TransUnion, you place credit freezes or credit locks on your reports, but not both. With Experian, you can put both a credit freeze and a credit lock on your report at the same time, but you have to manage each one separately. So if you decide to unfreeze your credit, you won’t automatically unlock your credit report too, and vice versa.
Credit lock vs. credit freeze vs. fraud alert
Credit freezes and locks offer similar levels of protection
Credit freezes and credit locks essentially do the same thing: prevent the bureaus from releasing your credit reports. The main difference is, federal law requires credit bureaus to offer free credit freezes (and thaws), whereas the bureaus provide credit locks as optional services.
Credit locks are free at TransUnion and Equifax , and you can use mobile apps to lock and unlock your credit reports at both bureaus immediately.
With TransUnion, you might get thrown when you see two credit-locking options on its website. Only one of them is free. TransUnion’s credit-monitoring service —which includes credit locking, unlimited access to your credit score and credit report, and $1 million in identity theft protection—costs a hefty $24.95 a month.
TransUnion’s free credit-locking product is called TrueIdentity . Although it doesn’t have as many bells and whistles as the paid version, you can use the service to lock your TransUnion credit report immediately, as well as receive alerts if someone applies for credit in your name.
Experian’s credit-locking service , meanwhile, is part of a plan called IdentityWorks Premium, which includes credit monitoring with all three credit bureaus. It’s free for the first 30 days but costs $19.99 a month after that. (Experian’s IdentityWorks Plus also offers credit locking at a less-expensive $9.99 a month.)
But credit freezes are guaranteed by federal law
Although locking your credit is a convenient option, freezing your reports might be a better way for you to control access to your data.
Federal law requires the bureaus to offer credit freezes (and thaws), but the agencies create and control their own credit-locking services. The freezing and thawing is free for as long as the law remains in effect, while the bureaus can charge you to lock and unlock your credit reports. Additionally, whereas credit locks may be slightly easier for you to control online or via app, all of the credit bureaus’ freeze platforms are reasonably simple to navigate.
We developed step-by-step instructions for you to freeze and thaw your credit reports with each bureau: Equifax , Experian , and TransUnion .
And if you want to secure your child’s credit report (or the credit report belonging to someone else for whom you are legally responsible), you can request free freezes with Equifax and TransUnion. While you can lock your child’s credit with Experian, you have to shell out for its monthly subscription.
Fraud alerts offer less protection but are still helpful
In addition to using credit freezes or locks, you can request free fraud alerts with all three bureaus.
A fraud alert stays on your credit report for 12 months, at which point you can either make a request to extend it or let it lapse. Or, if you’re a victim of identity theft—and you have a police report, or an identity theft report from the Federal Trade Commission—you can request an extended fraud alert, which lasts for seven years.
When you place a fraud alert on your credit report, creditors must try to contact you and verify your identity before extending you credit. The extra measure could help protect you from fraud: Someone can apply for an account using your information but might not be able to intercept a verification call to your phone number, or answer questions about your identity. Even so, a fraud alert doesn’t offer an all-out block the way a credit freeze or lock does.
You can put a fraud alert on your credit report alongside a freeze or lock, just in case someone else tries to thaw or unlock your reports.
Fortunately, placing a fraud alert on all three of your credit reports requires only one phone call or online request. For instance, when you ask Equifax to put a fraud alert on your report, it must relay your request to both TransUnion and Experian. (The FTC website provides the contact information for each bureau.)
Once you place a fraud alert on your credit, you receive free copies of your reports from each bureau.
Most important: None of these options fully prevent identity theft
Although freezes, locks, and fraud alerts help prevent thieves from opening credit accounts in your name, they don’t prevent identity theft or other types of fraud. People can steal your personal information online, at your office, or even from your trash can, and use it for nefarious purposes.
For example, a thief could use your personal information to claim a tax refund, which doesn’t involve the credit bureaus. Your existing accounts can be compromised, and thieves may be able to use your debit and credit cards to go on shopping sprees—or even worse, directly access your bank accounts and empty them.
Although consumer protection laws and some company policies may offer you recourse and help you get your money back, it can be a time-consuming hassle at best.
Protect yourself from identity theft and fraud with these tips:
Use strong, unique passwords for all of your online accounts. Our pick for the best password manager, 1Password, can help you generate and store passwords (as well as PINs and other information) securely.
Keep your phone, tablet, and computer software up-to-date with the latest security updates and patches.
Don’t give out personal information over the phone, even if the person calling says they’re with your bank, the IRS, the police, or a private company with which you do business. If you believe the call is legitimate, hang up and make a separate call to the company or agency to ensure you’re speaking with a real employee.
Sign up for free credit-monitoring services. Credit Karma offers free monitoring and alerts for your Equifax and TransUnion credit reports, while Experian has its own free service.
Get a paper shredder. If you receive your statements and bills by mail, shred those documents into tiny pieces to help thwart dumpster divers who are looking for your most intimate information.
The FTC has more resources and tips for preventing identity theft. And if you think your information is compromised, IdentityTheft.gov can help you navigate next steps with a customized recovery plan based on your circumstances.
Editorial note: Opinions expressed here are Wirecutter’s alone and have not been reviewed, approved, or otherwise endorsed by any third party.
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