With the rise of digitization, online hackers have more opportunities to get their hands on your data than ever before. Over 1,000 data breaches were reported in 2020 alone. Even companies with robust security systems are vulnerable. For example, Equifax’s 2017 data breach placed 147 million Americans’ personal information at risk.
If your data is exposed in a data breach, hackers can use it to apply for new credit accounts in your name, potentially damaging your credit score in the process. You may not even realize that there’s a new account on your credit report until it’s too late.
So, how can you protect your credit score from fraudulent credit applications? Credit freezes and credit locks. Below, we’ll explain how these two tools can safeguard your credit score and help you determine which one is right for you.
Credit Freezes vs. Credit Locks: What’s the Difference?
You can’t stop a data breach from happening, but you can prevent a hacker from successfully taking out a loan or credit card in your name. All you have to do is set up a credit freeze or credit lock.
What is a credit freeze?
A credit freeze enables you to temporarily “freeze” your credit report. When frozen, lenders won’t be able to view your credit without your consent. As a result, fraudulent credit applications won’t get approval.
When you want to apply for new credit, you’ll have to unfreeze (or “thaw”) your credit report first. The thawing process takes around an hour.
The credit bureaus used to charge fees to freeze and unfreeze credit reports. Luckily for consumers, since 2018 they’ve been mandated by law to provide these services free of charge.
What is a credit lock?
A credit lock works similarly to a credit freeze. After locking your credit report, lenders will no longer be able to access it, preventing any credit applications from going through.
Unlike credit freezes, credit locks are voluntary services provided by the credit bureaus and they aren’t required to be free. Some credit bureaus charge a monthly fee for their credit lock services.
The upside of credit locks? They allow you to lock and unlock your credit instantaneously—there’s no freezing or thawing time involved. As a result, credit locks are a little more convenient.
As you can see, putting a credit freeze or a credit lock on your credit report can provide an extra layer of protection against hackers or identity theft. However, determining which one is right for you requires taking a look at your financial situation and future goals.
How to Freeze Your Credit
To freeze your credit, you’ll have to file a request with each of the credit bureaus one by one. You can do so online, over the phone, or by mail. Here are the major credit bureaus credit freeze contact information:
- Equifax: Call (800) 349-9960 or go online
- Experian: Call (888) 397‑3742 or go online
- TransUnion: Call (888) 909-8872 or go online
During your credit freeze request, you’ll be asked to verify your identity by providing your SSN, birth date, and other personal information. After that, you will set a PIN that will enable you to freeze and unfreeze your credit moving forward.
Whether you request your credit freeze online or over the phone, the credit bureau is legally required to enact the freeze within 24 hours. If you request your credit freeze by mail, the credit bureau has up to three business days to complete your request.
How Long Do Credit Freezes Last?
In most states, your credit freeze will stay in place until you request to unfreeze it. However, some states automatically lift credit freezes after seven years. Remember, just as you froze your credit with each credit bureau, you’ll need to unfreeze it with each credit bureau too.
How to Unfreeze Your Credit
Freezing your credit can keep it safe while you’re not actively applying for new loans or credit cards. But, what about when you need to fill out a formal credit application?
To ensure your application can get approved, you’ll need to unfreeze your credit first. If you know which credit bureau your lender is going to use, you can simply unfreeze that credit bureau’s report. If not, you should go ahead and unfreeze all three.
After calling the credit bureau or logging into your online account, you can choose from the following unfreezing options:
- Unfreeze your credit permanently
- Pause your credit freeze temporarily
- Obtain a single-use PIN to allow a specific lender to access your frozen credit report
The credit bureaus are required to unfreeze your credit within one hour of receiving your request.
How to Lock Your Credit
If you choose to use credit locks instead, you’ll have to sign up for each credit bureau’s credit lock service individually.
How Much Do Credit Locks Cost?
Here’s the current credit lock pricing for the following credit bureaus:
- Equifax – Free with its credit lock service, Lock & Alert
- Experian – Free for the first month, then $24.99 a month with its CreditWorks Premium subscription
- TransUnion – Free with its TrueIdentity subscription, or $24.95 a month as a part of its Credit Lock Plus subscription
Once you’re signed up for the appropriate credit lock subscription with each credit bureau, you can lock your credit from their app or website in a few clicks. As soon as you’ve set up your credit lock, it should take effect immediately.
How Long Do Credit Locks Last?
Like credit freezes, credit locks typically stay in place until you unlock them—that is unless you stop paying for the required subscription. Your credit lock will no longer remain in place if you fall behind on your subscription payments.
How to Unlock Your Credit
When you want to apply for new credit, you’ll need to unlock your credit reports with each credit bureau separately. To do so, just log into the associated app or online account. Unlocking your credit can be done with the touch of a button. As soon as you do, the credit unlock should take effect instantaneously.
Credit Lock vs. Credit Freeze Which is Right for You?
Credit locks and credit freezes achieve similar outcomes. However, they differ in terms of cost, convenience, level of protection, and accessibility. As a result, one may better suit your financial situation and future goals than the other.
Why Choose a Credit Lock Over a Credit Freeze?
You may be wondering why you would pay some of the credit bureaus for credit locks when you can use credit freezes for free.
The reason? Credit locks are simply more convenient. Rather than filling out a request to unfreeze your credit online, by phone, or over the mail, you can simply touch a button within your mobile app or online account. Better yet, they take effect right away. If you apply for new credit regularly, the efficiency of credit locks may be enough to justify their price.
Why Choose a Credit Freeze Over a Credit Lock?
If you don’t apply for credit very often, a credit freeze can offer you the same type of protection for free. Credit freezes offer more protection since they’re federally regulated.
In contrast, some credit locks’ terms of service limit your rights if you experience a temporary lapse of service. For example, Experian and TransUnion’s credit locks feature an arbitration clause. They also require you to waive your right to participate in a class-action lawsuit.
When Should You Use Credit Freezes or Credit Locks?
Whether you prefer the affordability of credit freezes or the convenience of credit locks, these tools can benefit you when:
- You think you’ve fallen victim to identity theft – If you suspect that your personal information has been leaked in a data breach, setting up a credit freeze or credit lock can stop any fraudulent credit applications from going through successfully.
- You’re not actively applying for new credit – Even if you don’t have any reason to believe your data is being passed around by hackers, blocking access to your credit at all times can provide your credit with a layer of protection and offer you more peace of mind.
Can You See Your Frozen or Locked Credit Report?
After freezing or locking your credit, you can still check your credit report and credit score. Some of the credit lock subscriptions make it even easier to review your credit. The following parties may also be able to view your credit:
- Your current lenders
- Debt collectors
- Marketers who want to send you new credit offers
- Credit monitoring service companies
- Certain government agencies
- Companies using your credit for insurance, employment, tenant, or background screening purposes
Do Credit Freezes or Credit Locks Impact Your Credit Score?
Protecting your credit with a credit lock or credit freeze won’t harm your credit score. If anything, it will help you maintain a higher credit score by preventing damage that could occur from a fraudulent credit application.
The Downsides of Using Credit Freezes and Credit Locks
While credit freezes and credit locks can protect your credit, they also come with a couple of disadvantages:
- They may be inconvenient – With these protections in place, you’ll need to remember to unfreeze or unlock your credit before applying for a new loan or credit card.
- They may prevent you from receiving instant credit authorizations – If you want to take out a credit card online or at a retail store, you may not be able to receive an instant authorization if your credit is frozen or locked.
However, these inconveniences still pale in comparison to the hassle of dealing with credit-related identity theft.
Credit Fraud Alerts: An Alternative to Credit Freezes and Credit Locks
If you don’t want to use credit freezes or credit locks, you can also protect your credit report with credit fraud alerts. Credit fraud alerts let the credit bureaus know that you suspect your identity may be stolen. There are three different types of credit alerts:
- Initial – This type of credit alert can be put in place for 90 days at a time.
- Extended – This type of credit alert can stay active for up to seven years, but it requires you to file a police report and submit it to the credit bureaus.
- Active military – This type of credit alert is only available to deployed military members.
If you’ve lost your credit card and believe your identity is at risk, you can set up one of these credit fraud alerts. To do so, you’ll have to contact one of the credit bureaus and verify your identity with them. You can complete this process online, over the phone, or by mail.
When you have a credit fraud alert in place, the credit bureaus have to take extra steps to ensure that any credit requests you receive are valid. In turn, credit fraud alerts can prevent fraudulent credit applications from going through.
Protect Your Credit From the Next Data Breach Today
The risk of data breaches isn’t going away any time soon. If anything, data breaches are only becoming more common. Credit freezes and credit locks are two important tools to have in your credit protection arsenal.
While these tools can stop new credit accounts from popping up on your credit report, they can’t prevent scammers from making fraudulent charges on your current credit cards or bank accounts. For this reason, you should always watch out for suspicious transactions on your credit statements and bank statements.
How Mortgage Lenders Can Prevent Credit Fraud
If you’re a mortgage lender, credit fraud is just as much of a concern for you as it is for consumers. Applicants can falsify their credit report information to obtain mortgages they wouldn’t qualify for otherwise. Some applicants even engage in identity theft to carry out their schemes.
To protect your mortgage business, it’s important to know how to spot the signs of mortgage fraud and utilize effective fraud prevention tools, like the ones we offer at Certified Credit. In addition to our detailed automated fraud report, we provide:
- Two-tiered wire fraud prevention
- Liens and judgment reports
- MERS lien reports
- 1040, W-2, 1099, 1120, and 1065 tax transcript verification
- SSA89 Social Security number verification
- Real-time identity theft protection
- ID risk review (which generates a risk score based on a borrower’s name, address, phone, SSN, DOB, OFAC, and FinCen watch lists)
About Certified Credit
Want to learn more ways to maintain a great credit score? Head on over to the Certified Credit blog. There, we provide credit-related tips and tricks for borrowers and lenders.
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Investopedia. Credit Fraud Alert Definition.