Are you concerned about keeping your credit reports safe from identity theft? You should be.
It seems data breaches and scams designed to hoodwink the public are only becoming more common. According to a recent Harris Poll, three in five adults in the United States report that they, or an immediate family member, have been the victim of a scheme to defraud them.
At the risk of coming off all doom and gloom, if you haven’t been a victim of ID theft yet, it may be only a matter of time. Yet accepting the fact that your personal information probably isn’t safe might be just the wake up call you need to do something.
Blocking Access to Your Credit Reports
Blocking access to your credit reports helps limit the damage if and when your personal identifying information is stolen. In other words, it keeps bad guys from using your stolen information against you. Placing a lock or freeze on your credit reports can accomplish this goal.
Take note: For either a lock or freeze to effectively protect your credit, you’ll need to place one on each of your three credit reports individually: Equifax®, Experian™, and TransUnion®.
Both credit freezes and credit locks restrict access to your credit reports. Each service prevents your credit reports from being accessed by lenders unless you first “thaw” or “unlock” your reports.
The result? If someone gets your Social Security number and tries to use your stolen personal information to open a new account in your name, like a credit card, the lender won’t be able to access your credit report(s). And, if a lender can’t access your credit, the phony application will be denied.
Credit locks and credit freezes have a similar impact on the accessibility of your credit reports. Neither action will have any affect on your credit scores. Additionally, neither will stop you from receiving prescreened offers of credit in the mail, because they only prevent hard credit inquiries.
However, they aren’t exactly the same.
Here’s a breakdown of these two popular credit protection tools to help you determine which one may be the best fit for your situation.
Credit Locks vs. Credit Freezes: Which Is Better?
Let’s start with a quick rundown of how credit locks and freezes work. We’ll explore each in more detail a bit later.
|Credit Lock||Credit Freeze|
|Conveniently lock and unlock your credit reports immediately on your computer or mobile device, online or through a mobile app||Freeze and thaw your credit reports online, over the phone, or through the mail. Typically a PIN is required to thaw reports with each bureau.Note: Equifax® allows you to thaw your report online with username and password.|
|Equifax® credit lock: Free|
Experian™ credit lock: $4.99/first month, then $24.99 each additional month as part of a package of services.
TransUnion® credit lock: Free (though you may be targeted by ads)
|Free of charge, per federal law|
|Per the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), “If you want a free freeze guaranteed by federal law, then opt for a freeze, not a lock.”||Recommended by the FTC|
Credit locks are marketed by the credit bureaus as user-friendly products that give you more control over who is allowed to access your credit files to open new credit. Experian™ advertises the tool like so: “With the touch of a button, you can lock your Credit File, keeping fraudsters and identity thieves away.”
While credit locks are arguably more convenient than freezes (you can easily lock or unlock your reports through apps), they aren’t something the credit bureaus are required to provide under federal law. Instead, a credit lock is a service each credit bureau provides voluntarily — sometimes for a fee or with certain strings attached.
If you wish to place locks on your three credit reports, here are some helpful links:
A credit freeze, also called a security freeze, can be a little less convenient to navigate. You can place and remove a freeze online, over the phone, or even via mail. However, you generally have to save or remember specific PINs (provided by each credit bureau) whenever you want to thaw your reports in the future.
That being said, credit freezes are a federally guaranteed right. And, thanks to the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), credit freezes are available to you 100% free of charge from all three major credit bureaus.
Freezes and thaws will typically take place instantly when requested online or by phone. If you mail a request it will take longer.
Locks and Freezes Are Different From Fraud Alerts
You shouldn’t confuse credit locks or credit freezes with fraud alerts.
Fraud alerts tell businesses that check your credit report(s) that they should double check with you before opening a new credit account in your name. While fraud alerts certainly aren’t a bad idea, the protection they offer isn’t as iron-clad as a credit lock or credit freeze, which takes your report out of circulation altogether.
On the other hand, fraud alerts are easier to initiate. You can place a fraud alert on all three of your reports by making a single request with just one credit bureau. That credit bureau is responsible for notifying the other two that you wish for fraud alerts to be placed on all three of your credit reports. By comparison, credit locks and credit freezes must be placed with each credit bureau individually — three separate requests.
Remember, with locks, freezes, and fraud alerts you can still check your own credit reports any time you wish. If you haven’t checked your credit lately, remember that there are many ways to do this fairly easily, and you’re entitled to a free annual credit report from each of the three credit reporting agencies once every 12 months.