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A credit freeze and a credit lock are two ways to protect your credit reports from being used by scammers to open new accounts.
You may see the terms “credit freeze” and “credit lock” used interchangeably, and they do offer similar protections. A key difference is that it’s simpler to unlock a credit lock than it is to “thaw” a credit freeze. But a freeze may afford legal protections that a lock doesn't.
When you freeze your credit at the three credit reporting bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — you restrict access to your credit report so most lenders can’t see your information until you unfreeze it. Since a creditor is unlikely to open a new account in your name without checking your credit, that protects you from fraudulent accounts. Unfreezing your report requires the use of a password-protected account or a PIN.
Similarly, when you lock your credit, you restrict most lenders’ access. But you can unlock your credit report immediately at any time, on your computer or mobile device, when you do want to allow access.
The credit bureaus sometimes promote their credit lock services, which can carry a monthly fee, alongside their credit freeze options, which are free.
Compare credit freeze and credit lock
When to use a credit freeze
A credit freeze helps protect your credit report. It’s a smart option if you’re a victim of identity theft or believe your information has been compromised, as happened in the Equifax breach. NerdWallet recommends freezes for most consumers as a preventive measure.
Federal law requires credit bureaus to offer free credit freezes and unfreezes.
You can thaw your credit report by giving direct authorization to each of the credit bureaus, through a password-protected account or PIN.
Freezing your credit report at all three bureaus is vital to fully protecting your information.
You can still access your credit records and scores under a credit freeze. If you don’t already have a way to regularly monitor your score and report information, consider signing up with NerdWallet for a free credit report summary, updated weekly.
When to use a credit lock
You can use a credit lock as a preventive measure to protect your information or when your information has been compromised. Its convenience lets you quickly allow lenders access to your report and then immediately lock it again — if you’re shopping for a home or car, for instance.
Unlike a freeze, locks are not governed by federal law. Service agreements for each bureau make it clear that the companies don’t guarantee error-free operation or uninterrupted service.
As with a credit freeze, a credit lock is most effective if you sign up at all three bureaus.
You can sign up for a credit lock at each bureau’s website and also access the respective app to lock or unlock your credit report. Each one offers a slightly different version of the credit lock, so check exactly what you’re signing up for.
Equifax’s free credit lock product is called Lock & Alert. The company says it will be free for life. The terms of service do not include an arbitration clause or class action lawsuit waiver; that means you don't sign away your option to sue or join a lawsuit.
Experian bundles its credit lock with other services. The least expensive option, IdentityWorks Plus at $9.99 a month, includes a credit lock, identity theft insurance and alerts when information changes on your report at all three bureaus. Its terms of service do include an arbitration clause and class action waiver.
TransUnion’s free product, administered under TransUnion’s TrueIdentity brand, offers the lock/unlock option and other features, but the service agreement does include an arbitration clause and class action waiver. It also requires users to agree to receive targeted marketing materials.