Equifax’s free “Lock & Alert” feature — launched in January after its data breach in 2017 — lets users simply click or swipe to lock and unlock their credit reports.
All three major credit bureaus now offer credit lock products, but a credit freeze may still be the better option for consumers.
Does using Equifax’s free credit lock service or a competitor’s product make sense for you? With free freezes for everyone coming in late September, the choice may depend on the effort required and your willingness to try a new product or agree to terms set by credit bureaus. (Under legislation passed earlier this year, freezing and lifting your credit files at each of the three bureaus will be free.)
We break down the difference between a credit freeze and credit lock, and how credit locks from Equifax, TransUnion and Experian compare.
Locking your credit vs. freezing
Locks and freezes both make your credit reports inaccessible to most people, with the goal of blocking anyone who might try to open fraudulent credit accounts in your name. If you want to apply for any sort of credit — say, a new credit card or auto loan — you’ll have to unlock or unfreeze a report or reports during the application process.
With a lock, you do not need extra security like a personal identification number.
With a lock, the process of blocking and restoring access is simpler than with a freeze. A freeze, the strongest level of protection, requires a PIN. With a lock, you do not need extra security like a personal identification number, and you can lock or unlock your credit online or via each bureau’s app.
Equifax and TransUnion offer free credit locks, while Experian’s lock is available as part of a paid bundled service.
Some things are the same with either a freeze or lock: You need to set it up at each credit bureau individually, you can still monitor your own credit report and score, and freezes and locks do not affect your score.
Credit lock: There may be a catch
There is one important difference between a lock and a freeze, says Chi Chi Wu, a staff attorney for the National Consumer Law Center. Credit freezes are governed by state law. That means if something goes wrong — if a requested freeze wasn’t placed or it was mistakenly lifted — a consumer may have legal recourse.
Locks would not fall under state law, Wu says. And such products may fail. Service agreements for each bureau make it clear that the companies don’t guarantee error-free operation or uninterrupted service.
Lifting a freeze may not be as difficult as it sounds.
The inconvenience associated with “thawing” a credit freeze is often cited as a disadvantage. But lifting a freeze may not be as difficult as it sounds. If you know your PIN, it can take less than five minutes.
Equifax credit lock vs. competitors
Each major bureau handles credit locks differently.
Equifax’s lock is part of its attempt to regain trust with consumers after a data breach affecting nearly 148 million consumers — more than half the adult population in the U.S.
Equifax has said its service will always be free, and that the service agreement will never contain an arbitration clause or class-action waiver. That means you do not give up your right to sue the company or join a lawsuit if the lock fails.
Equifax freezes and lifts are both free.
TransUnion’s lock is also free, but it requires that users agree to receive targeted marketing materials. Its service agreement contains an arbitration clause and class-action waiver, which are widely considered not to be in consumers’ best interests.
Experian only offers credit locks bundled with its identity theft or credit monitoring packages. Its IdentityWorks Plus membership option, the cheapest package at $9.99 per month, includes a credit lock. A 30-day free period means the first year would cost $109.89.
Experian’s service agreement, like TransUnion’s, contains an arbitration clause and a class-action waiver.
Should you get a credit lock?
If you want to lock your credit reports at all three bureaus, the cost would be nearly $110 per year — that covers the two free locks plus Experian’s identity protection service. You would have unlimited opportunities to lock and unlock your credit reports.
If you opt to freeze instead, you would pay nothing (at least after late September). But if you should lose or forget your PIN, it will almost certainly take longer to recover it than it would take to change a password for a credit lock.
NerdWallet recommends freezes for most consumers.
Wu, like many credit experts, freezes her credit reports, and NerdWallet recommends freezes for most consumers.
Consumers who are shopping for a loan and have lifted a freeze might want the protection of a lock while the freeze is lifted. Locks may also appeal to consumers who don’t want to have to keep track of PINs to place and lift freezes.
Either a freeze or a lock is superior to a fraud alert, which simply lets businesses know that applications in your name should receive extra scrutiny.