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Credit freezes and credit locks both restrict access to your credit reports. But you can turn a credit lock on and off instantly, while adding or lifting a credit freeze requires making a request to the credit bureau. In addition, credit freezes are free, while credit locks are offered as part of paid services from the three national credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax).
Credit locks and credit freezes are tools that help prevent criminals from hijacking your credit history for purposes of identity theft and various forms of credit fraud. Applying either a credit freeze or a credit lock at one of the national credit bureaus blocks all access to your credit file, preventing credit checks that are typically the first step in processing applications for loans or credit cards.
A credit freeze or credit lock may be a wise idea if you've been victimized by an identity thief or if you know your personal data has been stolen, compromised through a data breach, or otherwise exposed to potential abuse. When this isn't the case, a fraud alert is often a better alternative.
What Is a Credit Freeze?
Federal law allows you to activate and remove a credit freeze on your credit report from each credit bureau at no cost.
To block all access to your credit history using credit freezes, you must request a separate freeze from each of the three national credit reporting agencies. To request a free Experian security freeze, visit Experian's Security Freeze Center or call 888-EXPERIAN (888-397-3742) and provide the required information.
When you place a security freeze on your credit report, the relevant credit bureau provides you with or lets you set up a PIN or password to use when lifting the freeze.
By law, credit bureaus must activate a credit freeze within 24 hours of receiving a request by phone or online, and they must lift a freeze within one hour of receiving a request to do so accompanied by your PIN or password. If you lose your PIN or password, you can request a reset from the respective credit bureau, but the one-hour time requirement will no longer apply.
Credit freezes are effective at thwarting unauthorized access to your credit file, but they also block authorized access to credit information. Because they prevent lenders from checking your credit, you'll need to "thaw" your credit freezes before applying for a loan or credit account.
Because they prevent credit checks, credit freezes may interfere with your ability to get instant credit authorizations at online or at retail checkouts, but they do not harm your credit or have any impact on your credit scores.
What Is a Credit Lock?
Like a credit freeze, a credit lock blocks all access to your credit report, but you can activate it and disable it instantly via a dedicated smartphone app or secure website. There's no delay of up to 24 hours when locking your credit file, and no delay of up to one hour when unlocking it, as with a credit freeze.
Service offerings that include credit-locking differ among the national credit bureaus. Experian offers CreditLock as part of its CreditWorksSM Premium subscription service, which also includes:
- Monthly access to credit reports from all three bureaus
- Alerts when there's new credit activity on your accounts at any of the three bureaus, to help you detect unauthorized action
- Up to $1 million in identity theft insurance
- Phone assistance from Experian experts in credit and fraud resolution
Each credit bureau requires you to provide proof of identity when you set up a credit lock. You can submit the necessary documents electronically or mail in hard copies.
The security benefits of a credit lock are the same as those for a credit freeze, and the limitations on access to your credit are the same as well: No criminal access to your credit file is possible, but neither is any legitimate access by new lenders to whom you are applying for loans or credit.
The ability to activate and deactivate a credit lock instantly, without the time delays inherent in the credit freeze process, can make the application process easier. So if you're at a stage of life where you anticipate to be making frequent applications for loans and credit, you may find a credit lock considerably more convenient than a credit freeze.
You may also want to consider a third option: a fraud alert.
When to Use a Fraud Alert
A less severe alternative to credit freezes and credit locks is another free option called a fraud alert. Fraud alerts allow lenders to see your credit file, but it requires verification of your identity before any credit application is processed or any new account is opened in your name.
There are three types of fraud alerts available:
- Initial fraud alert: While all fraud alerts are free, only the most basic one, known as an initial or temporary alert, can be set up by anyone, anytime and for any reason. You may want to place a temporary fraud alert if you suspect your personal information has been compromised but haven't yet confirmed it; if a credit card goes missing, for instance, or if you see unusual activity on a credit card or bank account but haven't yet determined if it's criminal. A temporary fraud alert lasts one year, but can be renewed indefinitely.
- Active-duty fraud alert: This type of fraud alert also lasts one year, and is designed for use by members of the U.S. armed forces on assignment away from home.
- Extended fraud alert: This alert lasts seven years and requires you to submit a copy of a fraud report you supplied to a law enforcement agency.
All three types of fraud alerts are lifted automatically upon expiration, but you can remove one anytime before that upon request, just as you can discontinue a credit freeze or credit lock.
How to Remove a Credit Freeze and Credit Lock
The quickest and easiest way to remove a credit freeze is via the PIN code or password set up when you activated your credit freeze. You can call the credit bureau by phone or visit the credit freeze page on its website. If you've frozen your credit at all three national bureaus, you'll need to thaw it at each bureau separately as well. You'll have the option to thaw your credit permanently, lift the freeze temporarily, or to get a single-use PIN or password you can provide to a creditor you want to give access to your frozen credit file.
Removing a credit lock requires only that you flip a virtual switch online or in an app provided by one of the credit bureaus. When access to your credit file is no longer required, you can reapply the lock just as easily by turning the switch back on.
Credit freezes and credit locks are relatively extreme measures that lock down your credit files completely, preventing access by both criminal actors and lenders from whom you may be seeking credit. They offer excellent security for your credit data, but using them when you're actively seeking new credit requires some careful planning.