Credit Report: Freeze, Lock & Fraud Alerts
You can either freeze or lock each of your credit reports. In theory, either will prevent potential creditors from pulling your credit report, which provides a high degree of assurance that fraudsters won't be able to open credit accounts in your name.
If you know (or suspect) you've already been a victim of identify theft, be sure to read the additional recommended steps at the bottom of this page.
A credit freeze is required and defined by Federal law. As such, it offers the most protection and is free of charge. The downside is that the process to freeze and unfreeze is more arduous.
A credit lock is a concept created not by law but by the credit bureaus themselves. It is designed to be easier to toggle on and off, although the protections it offers may not be as complete or solid as a freeze.
Best Practice: Freeze it All!
The recommended best practice it simply to freeze all of your credit reports. It offers the best protection.
If you have any reason to believe you are at risk for credit theft, or any of your personal information has been compromised, putting a freeze in place at each of the three major credit bureaus is without question the right approach.
If you don't have reason to believe your data has been compromised, it's a judgment call. Freezing is one more thing you have to manage, but it is the best-in-class protection.
This NerdWallet provides an excellent overview of how to freeze your credit, as well as some additional, more nuanced items to keep in mind when deciding what move is right for you.
You may also want to check out this NerdWallet article provides a good overview of what Freezes are all about with additional detail on how to put freezes in place.
Should I Lock?
If you choose to freeze your accounts, there is no reason to lock. If you opt not to freeze, locking is a good second choice.
Both TransUnion and Equifax offer credit locks for free, although you have to create an account with each of them. Experian only offers an account lock as part of a paid credit monitoring subscription.
Identity Already Stolen? Consider these steps.
If you know (or suspect) your personal information is at risk, or that someone has already open fraudulent accounts in your name, there are some additional steps you should consider.
First, take this identity theft assessment offered by the Federal Trade Commission. It will walk you through what next steps are best for your situation.
Second, consider putting place a fraud alert in place at the credit bureaus. You need only contact one of the three major credit bureaus - once the fraud alert is put in place, the bureau is obligated to inform the other two. This overview from the Federal Trade Commission provides a good overview of the two different types of fraud alerts you might want to put in place.
If you suspect your private information is at risk, it's STRONGLY recommended that you also FREEZE your credit files.