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Locking your credit is a procedure that can help prevent identity theft and credit fraud by blocking access to your credit report. A credit lock, also known as a security lock, has the same result as a credit freeze, but it's easier and quicker to lock and unlock your credit than to freeze and un-freeze (or "thaw") it.
Locking your credit prevents lenders and others (with a few exceptions, as we'll discuss below) from accessing your credit report or using it to get a credit score. Checking your credit is typically one of the first steps in processing a loan or credit application, so blocking access to your credit file can stop fraudsters and thieves from opening new accounts or borrowing money in your name—a common consequence of identity theft.
Note that you must block access to your credit reports at all three national credit bureaus (Experian, TransUnion and Equifax). Locking your credit at one bureau does not automatically lock it at the others.
How Does Locking Your Credit Work?
Procedures for setting up credit-locking services vary among the three bureaus:
- Experian offers credit locking as part of its CreditWorksSM Premium subscription service, which also includes:
- Monthly access to updated credit reports from all three bureaus
- Notifications of new credit activity at any of the three bureaus (to help detect unauthorized actions)
- Up to $1 million in identity theft insurance
- Phone assistance from Experian credit and fraud resolution experts
- Last year, as the free 12-month credit freezes it provided after its 2017 data breach were about to expire, Equifax announced that it would provide credit locks free to consumers starting this year.
- TransUnion includes credit locking in its free TrueIdentity subscription service, which includes monthly access to TransUnion credit reports and up to $25,000 in ID theft insurance.
Each bureau requires proof of identity as part of its credit lock setup process.
What's the Difference Between a Credit Lock and a Credit Freeze?
While the end results are similar, credit locks and credit freezes are significantly different. The major differences are as follows:
- Credit freezes are free, and their availability is mandated under federal law. They may be obtained by phoning or sending mail to Experian, Equifax or TransUnion. Unlike credit lock services, you can request credit freezes for your children under the age of 16, as well as for yourself.
- The credit bureaus are required to complete a freeze on your credit information within 24 hours of receiving a phone request and must lift the freeze within one hour following a phone request.
- When you request a credit freeze from a given bureau, it will give you a PIN that you must use when requesting the freeze's removal. If you cannot supply your PIN, the freeze can still be lifted, but additional identity verification will be needed, and the one-hour response requirement is removed.
- Credit locks let you control access to your credit reports directly, via smartphone apps or a secure website.
- After registering with each bureau and verifying your identity with them, you can turn access to your credit files on and off instantly via smartphone app or online, with no delays or PINs, when you lock your credit.
A convenience of credit lock is that it enables you to coordinate with lenders (at your bank or credit union, an auto dealership, or when seeking instant credit at a retailer, for instance) to enable access to your credit score when they need it to process your loan application, and then turn access off again when they finish.
Because you control the accessibility of your credit file directly, credit locks can eliminate delays in blocking access to your data if you notice suspicious activity because there's no 24-hour turnaround, as with a credit freeze. Credit locks make it easier to unblock your data when you want a lender or other creditor to be able to check your credit, and they make it less likely you'll forget to re-block the data after an authorized credit check is performed.
When either a credit lock or credit freeze is in effect, access to your credit file is blocked for purposes of credit checks related to loan and credit applications, but certain entities are still permitted to check your file, including the following:
- You (you can always view your own credit report)
- Creditors with whom you have a business relationship at the time the lock or freeze is activated
- Landlords or rental agencies conducting background checks
- Phone companies and utilities
- Debt collection agencies trying to collect payments
- Child support agencies seeking to set the amount of child support
- Lenders and credit companies who have prescreened you for credit offers
- Insurance underwriters acting with your authorization
- Potential employers you have granted permission
- Government agencies acting according to court orders or warrants
When Should I Lock My Credit?
If you know or suspect your Social Security number or other personal identification information has been exposed in a data breach, consider locking or freezing your credit. A credit lock may be preferable if you plan to apply for loans or credit cards in the months and years ahead and want the ability to block and enable access to your credit files on demand.
By blocking access to your credit files, credit locks give you the same benefits as credit freezes in terms of pre-empting creation of new loan accounts in your name, but with a greater degree of personal control and convenience.