Today, data breaches are nearly a daily event. Once this stolen data ends up on the dark web, criminals can get ahold of them and steal your identity. With your stolen identity, they can open a new credit account in your name, rack up the charges, and leave you with damaged credit and potential legal problems.
To help prevent this issue, the credit bureaus offer credit locks and credit freezes. We’ll cover how they work and lay out their key differences in a credit freeze vs. lock head-to-head comparison.
Credit freezes and credit locks are similar tools designed to protect your credit by preventing criminals from opening new accounts in your name. But there are a few key differences between them.
A credit freeze is a credit-protection tool that allows you to freeze and unfreeze your credit as needed. When you freeze your credit, no one — not even you — can apply for new credit under your identity, preventing fraud from impacting your credit history and credit score. However, you can temporarily lift the freeze to apply for new credit, then freeze it again.
Freezing your credit won’t impact your ability to get a job, apply for a new apartment, or purchase insurance.
You will receive a personal identification number (PIN) or password that allows you to unfreeze your credit when needed. When you contact the credit bureau to lift the freeze via your PIN or password, it has one hour to complete the lift.
The credit freeze is relatively new, as this free offering became a requirement under federal law on September 21, 2018 — shortly after the massive Equifax data breach.
Credit lock services are similar to a credit freeze in that they prevent anyone from applying for and opening new accounts under your name. However, its key distinguishing trait is you can lock and unlock your credit immediately — no 24-hour delay to lock it or one-hour delay to unlock it — via the internet or the credit bureau‘s mobile app.
Another key difference is each credit bureau has its own credit locking service, and they come with a monthly fee.
If you placed a security freeze or lock on your credit, lifting it is no harder than placing the initial freeze or lock.
If it’s a credit freeze, You can lift the freeze temporarily by calling the credit bureau or going to the credit freeze page on their website and providing your PIN or password. By law, the credit bureau will unfreeze your credit within one hour, though it often takes mere minutes.
You can also temporarily lift your credit freeze via mail, which may take up to three days to complete.
You can also request to permanently lift it — known as “thawing” your credit — through the same processes.
For a credit lock, you can unlock your credit by navigating to the credit bureau‘s website or app, navigating to the credit lock interface, and toggling your credit to “unlocked.”
If you don’t want to completely lock or freeze your credit, then a fraud alert is a good option. You can place a free fraud alert on your credit by contacting one of the credit bureaus.
With a fraud alert in place, lenders can see your credit report, but they must contact you to verify your identity before approving you and opening an account under your name.
Fraud alerts are 100% free. You only have to contact one of the credit bureaus to activate it — no need to contact all three bureaus.
There are three main types of fraud alerts: initial fraud alert, active-duty fraud alert, and extended fraud alert.
Anyone who suspects fraud can place an initial fraud alert at any time by contacting one of the three credit bureaus. Some examples of times you’d use an initial fraud alert include:
- You lost a credit card, and you are unsure if you just misplaced it or if a criminal stole it.
- You found your information for sale on the dark web, or you were a data breach victim.
- You found a fraudulent account on your credit file.
- You misplaced sensitive identifying documents, including a Social Security card, driver’s license, passport, or any document with your full Social Security number on it.
An initial fraud alert lasts one year, but you can renew it as often as you’d like.
Active-duty fraud alerts are for military members who are on assignment overseas. This has all the same benefits as the initial fraud alert, but it also forces all credit bureaus to remove you from their marketing lists — where credit card companies and insurance companies get your information to send you unsolicited offers — for two years.
The extended fraud alert is only for someone who was a victim of identity theft and filed an identity theft report with the FTC or the police.
An extended fraud alert has the same basic fraud protection as the active-duty fraud alert — a business must contact you to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name. The key differences are:
- You get two free credit reports from all three credit bureaus — a total of six credit reports — within the first year you placed the alert
- Credit bureaus must take you off their marketing lists for five years
- Your fraud alert is active for seven years
Similar to the credit freeze or credit lock, you can lift a fraud alert from your credit by calling each credit bureau and requesting its removal or by going online and removing it. You can also do so online.
Online or over the phone should be a near-immediate removal, whereas mailing your request may take a few days.
Alternatively, you can simply wait for the fraud alert to expire, which is one year from its placement in most cases. The only exception is an extended fraud alert, which lasts up to seven years.
In this day and age where data breaches and scams have become the norm, protecting your personal finances, including your credit information, is paramount.
At the very least, you should consider using credit freezes from all three credit bureaus. This will help reduce the chances of you falling victim to credit fraud or identity theft, and it’s minimally inconvenient. The only downside is you must plan ahead and unfreeze your credit before applying for new accounts.
For those who are building their credit score and like to keep their finger on their credit’s pulse, paying the monthly fee for credit locking services, which the bureaus usually package with credit monitoring and other credit services, may be worthwhile.
A credit lock may be a better option if you’re shopping for a big-ticket item you plan to finance, like a car or home, since you can activate and deactivate the lock instantly. If you choose to freeze your credit in this case, you could receive a rejection due to the potential delay in unfreezing it. Once you complete the financing, you can shut down the paid subscription and shift to a free credit freeze instead.
Fraud alerts can be helpful too, but the only time you should activate them is if you suspect someone has accessed your personal information or you’ve previously been a victim of identity theft. If you’re in the military and heading overseas, you can enroll in the active-duty fraud alert.
Credit freezes and credit locks are similarly structured credit-protection tools that keep bad actors from opening new credit accounts in your name. While they share the same basic function, they have a handful of key differences:
- A credit freeze is free, while a credit lock is usually part of a paid subscription through the credit bureau.
- A credit freeze is a government-regulated program, while credit locks are regulated only by the bureau offering them.
- A credit freeze can take up to an hour to lift by phone or the credit bureau‘s website, while credit locks are immediately lifted via a mobile app, phone call, or bureau’s website.
There is also a fraud alert for those who don’t want to go through the headache of locking and unlocking or freezing and unfreezing their credit. This government-regulated program is also free and requires companies to contact you before opening a new credit account in your name.
No matter which option you choose, they are all valuable ways to help keep your credit and identity safe.
You can further protect your credit score by paying off any high-interest credit card debt with a Tally line of credit1. This credit line offers interest rates that are usually lower than a credit card, helping you pay off debt quicker while paying less in interest. Tally will also manage all your credit card payments, so you make just one payment per month, and Tally handles the rest.
1To get the benefits of a Tally line of credit, you must qualify for and accept a Tally line of credit. The APR (which is the same as your interest rate) Will be between 7.9% – 25.9% per year, and will be based on your credit history. The APR will vary with the market based on the Prime Rate.