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Credit Freeze vs. Credit Lock: Here's All You Need to Know

Top10.com Staff
Credit freeze vs credit lock
Loan/lease fraud is the fastest-growing type of identity theft in America, with cases more than doubling last year. Fortunately, there are two ways to prevent scammers from misusing your credit reports to open new accounts in your name. One way is a credit freeze and the other is a credit lock. In this article, we explore the subtle differences between these two services.

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Credit Lock vs. Credit Freeze: The Main Differences

Credit freeze
Credit lock
How do you open it?
Online, by phone, or by mail - with a secure PIN
Online/mobile app, using a username and password
How are they regulated?
State and federal law
Contract between you and credit bureau
Does it cost anything?
Sometimes, but not always 

What is a Credit Freeze?

  • Prevents creditors from accessing your credit file
  • The highest form of security possible
  • Doesn’t cost a dime

A credit freeze (also known as a security freeze) blocks anyone from accessing your credit report. Let’s say a cybercriminal uses your stolen identity (e.g. your social security number or other personal information) to try to apply for a loan in your name. With a credit freeze, the lender/creditor would reject the application because they would be unable to access your credit report.

How to freeze your credit file. For complete protection, you have to request a freeze with each of the 3 major credit reporting bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. You can request a freeze on each of the bureaus’ websites, by mail, or by phone. A credit freeze won’t prevent your existing creditors from accessing your credit report, but it will block new creditors from seeing it (and they’re the ones you need to worry about when it comes to identity theft).

How to thaw your credit file. At some stage, you may want to apply for a mortgage, loan, or other credit product. When this happens, you will need to lift the credit freeze (temporarily or permanently – it’s your choice).  When you first initiate a credit freeze, you will be given a PIN or password that you can use at any time to lift the freeze. By law, the bureaus must lift the freeze within one hour of receiving an electronic or phone request or three business days of a mailed request.

Cost to freeze your credit file. Until recently, initiating a credit freeze would have cost up to $10 per bureau, depending on which state your live. But thanks to the 2018 Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act, freezing and thawing your credit file is now free in every state and with every bureau.

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What is a Credit Lock?

Also prevents creditors from accessing your credit file

  • Easier to unlock your credit file than to thaw it
  • Might cost money if you need the lock long-term

Like a credit freeze, a credit lock prevents creditors from getting access to your credit file. But while a freeze is protected by state/federal law, a credit lock is only governed by contract between you and the bureaus. On the positive side, it is easier to unlock a locked credit file than it is to thaw a frozen credit file.

How to lock your credit file. Like with credit freezing, a credit lock only gives you full protection if you do it with all three bureaus. Each bureau offers a credit lock service that you can register for online.

How to unlock your credit file. When you sign up for your credit lock, you’ll be asked to create a username and password and download a special mobile app. On the app, you can unlock your credit file in just one click.

Cost to lock your credit file. The cost varies from bureau to bureau. Equifax offers its ‘Lock and Alert’ service free of charge. Experian has a product called CreditWorks that includes a credit lock and up to $1 million ID theft insurance. It costs $4.99 for the first month and $24.99 each additional month. TransUnion’s Credit Monitoring bundles together credit lock with other services for $24.95 months.

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Credit Freeze vs. Credit Lock: Which to Use

Which to use
Your identity has been stolen
You're not planning on applying for credit any time soon
You regularly apply for credit
You want to protect and insure yourself against ID theft

While there are a few differences in how they work, the overall difference between a credit freeze and credit lock can be summed up like this: a credit freeze is stronger and more permanent, while a credit lock is more flexible. 

If your identity has been stolen or compromised, which can happen to you individually or part of a massive data breach, like the one that hit 147 million Equifax accounts in 2017, you may want to consider a credit freeze. That’s because it’s free to initiate a credit freeze and you’re protected by state and federal laws.

If you want the same level of protection as a credit freeze but also want the option of being able to apply for new credit regularly, then a credit lock might be a better option. With a credit lock, you can lock or unlock your credit report in one click. Two of the three credit bureaus charge for credit locks, but they also throw in other services (such as ID theft insurance) as part of the package.

The Choice Is Yours

ID theft is a serious matter, and cybercriminals are constantly finding new ways to steal and exploit our personal information. Fortunately, there are ways to protect yourself. When it comes to protecting your credit reports, there are two ways to go about it: a credit freeze or credit lock. Both methods work just as well. Which one you use depends on how much flexibility you need and whether you’re willing to pay.

Top10.com Staff
Top10.com's editorial staff is a professional team of editors and writers with dozens of years of experience covering consumer, financial and business products and services.