Should I lock or freeze my credit file?

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In a Nutshell

Locking and freezing your credit file are two ways to help reduce the risk of identity theft. The best option for you generally depends on how often you apply for credit and how much you’re willing to pay.

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It seems you can’t go more than a week without hearing about how another company suffered a major data breach that put thousands of people’s identifying information at risk.

Just how bad is it? The Identity Theft Resource Center compiles statistics on data breaches, and their reports show that more than 1 billion records have been exposed since they started tracking in 2005.

All these breaches add up to a serious headache for consumers. In some cases, criminals can access or purchase your personal information compromised in a breach and use it to open fraudulent financial accounts in your name. If you’re not doing things to help you spot potential identity theft, such as closely monitoring your credit reports, you could be in for a mess when dealing with the aftermath.

So, what’s one thing you can do to reduce your risk?

Credit file locks and freezes could be part of the solution

Credit file locks and credit file freezes put a halt to companies requesting to view your credit reports before approving you for a new account.

While current creditors and debt collectors acting on their behalf can still pull your reports, criminals shouldn’t be able to open a new account without your knowledge or permission.

FAST FACTS

How can I get a copy of my credit reports?

You can get free access to your credit scores, reports and monitoring within minutes at Credit Karma. Credit Karma features VantageScore 3.0 credit scores provided independently by TransUnion and Equifax.

But a credit card company or other lender will likely use a different scoring model altogether. Many different factors are considered when calculating a score, and each model may weigh credit factors differently.

Though your scores may vary, they`re all based on information in your credit reports. So focusing on what`s in your reports could help you build your credit overall. Once you know where you stand, Credit Karma can help you figure out where to go from there.

Credit file locks and credit file freezes aren’t the same thing, though. Here’s what you need to know.

Credit lock         Credit freeze
What does it do? Prevents creditors from gaining access to your credit report Prevents creditors from gaining access to your credit report
How quickly does it go into effect? Usually instantly, but some bureaus take up to 48 hours No later than five business days after receiving your request
How long does it take to remove it from your account?   You can generally unlock your credit immediately Up to three business days
Is it governed by law? No Yes, laws have been passed by nearly all U.S. States
How long does it last? The length of your subscription to the service from the credit bureau Depends. Indefinitely in some states; seven years in some others

 

What’s the cost?

Experian CreditLock: Free for 30 days, $19.99 each additional month

 

Equifax Lock & AlertTM: Free

 

TransUnion TrueIdentity: Free

Experian: Free

Equifax: Free

TransUnion: Free


How credit file locks work

Credit file locks are usually a feature of products offered by the three major consumer credit bureaus (as opposed to guaranteed by law). Each bureau has its own identity theft resources, which may include credit file locks.

When you lock your credit file with a specific credit bureau, lenders can no longer access your credit file from that bureau.

While the timing for each bureau’s product varies, credit locks allow you to quickly lock and unlock your reports in a relatively painless manner (usually via an app or the bureau’s website). Locks may be removed instantly or take up to 48 hours to be removed.

How to lock your credit reports with all three bureaus

Unfortunately, there’s no central hub where you can lock or freeze all your reports at once. So technically, you’ll need to lock or freeze your credit reports at all three bureaus to have the best chance at preventing criminals from opening new accounts. Here’s how to lock your report with each of the major bureaus:

Pros and cons of locking your credit file

According to Alayna Pehrson, digital marketing strategist at the consumer review site BestCompany, “It’s a lot easier to unlock and lock credit than it is to unfreeze and freeze credit.”

“Credit lock services typically cost a monthly or annual fee,” Pehrson says. However, some bureaus now offer the service for free in light of recent data breaches.

These fees may be worth the cost if you plan to regularly unlock and lock your reports since you won’t have to pay potential credit freeze fees.

Just remember, you’ll no longer be able to lock your credit report if you get rid of the service or product with a bureau.

As we briefly mentioned above, you should also note that credit locking isn’t governed by law as credit freezing is in most states. What this means is that a credit freeze generally has more protections guaranteed by law, so you may have more rights if fraud occurs after a credit freeze as opposed to a credit lock.


How credit file freezes work

There’s one major difference between credit file locks and credit file freezes: Unlike locks, freezes do not require you to maintain a subscription at a credit bureau. To place a freeze on your credit reports, simply visit each bureau’s website or call the phone number.

New federal legislation requires credit-reporting agencies to offer free credit freezes and unfreezes beginning no later than September 21, 2018.

How to freeze your credit report with all three bureaus

If you want to freeze your report with each of the major bureaus, you can start by calling the following numbers. We’ve also included the appropriate link for each bureau.

Pros and cons of freezing your credit file

On the bright side, credit freezes can last for a long time. Most states allow credit freezes to stay in place until you remove them, but other states allow freezes to expire after seven years. With credit freezes, you don’t have to worry about your subscription expiring and removing your lock.

As noted above, new federal law will make freezing and unfreezing your credit reports free across the country.

Credit freezes may take longer to lift (or “thaw”) than credit locks. While credit freezes can be lifted quickly in some cases, certain states’ laws allow credit bureaus up to three business days to lift a credit freeze.


Other ways to reduce your risk

Putting a freeze or lock on your credit report is just one way to begin reducing your risk of identity theft.

Get free credit monitoring now

Going forward, you should always monitor your credit reports from all three major consumer credit bureaus for any suspicious activity or incorrect reporting that may appear.

If you don’t want to deal with the hassle of checking your credit reports manually, Credit Karma offers free credit monitoring for your TransUnion and Equifax credit reports.

Other ways to reduce your risk of identity theft in your everyday life include:

  • Not giving out more personal info than necessary. Whenever you’re filling out documentation for medical offices or any other reason, never give out any information that isn’t required — especially your Social Security number. Just leave the line item blank and only give the information if there’s a legitimate need.
  • Maintaining strong passwords. You should also use different usernames and strong passwords for each account you have. While it’s easier to use the same username and password so you don’t forget them, it only takes one account being compromised for an identity thief to access the rest of your accounts.

Credit Karma has also created another way to help you detect potential identity theft.

With the ID monitoring feature, you can use your email address to see if your personal information has been exposed in another company’s public data breach. We’ll also let you know some tips and tools to help you take the right next steps.

Sign up for Credit Karma’s free ID monitoring service.

We’ll also continue to monitor your identity and credit for free.

Bottom line

Locking or freezing your credit file may help prevent criminals from opening fraudulent accounts in your name.

If you don’t plan on applying for any new credit in the near future and your state doesn’t allow credit freezing fees, a freeze may be the way to go.

However, if you apply for new credit on a regular basis, the locking process might be easier to turn on and off on short notice.

Either way, make sure you continue monitoring your credit reports, protecting your personal information and using unique usernames and strong passwords to help reduce your risk of identity theft.

 


Editorial Note: Credit Karma receives compensation from third-party advertisers, but that doesn’t affect our editors' opinions. Our marketing partners don’t review, approve or endorse our editorial content. It’s accurate to the best of our knowledge when it’s posted.