The recent security breach at Equifax has left some 143 million consumers scrambling to understand the difference between fraud alerts and security freezes, and which works best in protecting their personal information.

The tools work in similar ways to prevent fraudulent use of your credit data, so it’s easy to mix them up.

Equifax added to the general confusion by marketing its credit monitoring service to those seeking information about the breach. The terms of use appeared to subject consumers to binding arbitration, which would have prevented them from joining class-action lawsuits. Under pressure from regulators, the company removed the arbitration requirement.

If you’re a victim of the Equifax breach, don’t hesitate to use these tools to safeguard your information. You can opt for one or both, depending on what’s right for your situation. Here’s how to choose between a freeze and a fraud alert, and the best way to protect your credit.

Security Freeze

A security freeze placed on your credit file will block most lenders from seeing your credit history. That makes a freeze the single most effective way to protect against fraud.

If a prospective lender can’t pull your credit report, he won’t issue a new loan. That usually stops identity thieves from setting up fraudulent accounts in your name.

There’s a drawback, though. The freeze also shuts out most companies you may want to do business with, including lenders, telecom companies, and insurers.

To give them access when you want to apply for a loan or open a cellular service account, you have to temporarily lift the freeze and set a date for it to be reinstated automatically.

Not everyone is blocked from getting your credit report. Banks and credit unions where you already have accounts can still check your credit report, as well as collection agencies and certain government agencies. 

A freeze might be free, depending on your state and circumstances—for example, if you’re an identity-theft victim and have filed a police report about the incident. Otherwise, expect to pay $2 to $12 to initiate or temporarily lift a freeze at each credit bureau: Equifax, Experian, TransUnion, and InnovisReview your state’s law for specific details.

Fraud Alert

A less restrictive option is a fraud alert, which is a notice placed on your credit report warning prospective lenders that you are a victim of identity theft. That means they should take reasonable extra steps to verify your identity before granting credit to the person claiming to be you.

To request a fraud alert, you have to contact only one of the big three credit bureaus— Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion. The bureau you contact will pass it on to the other two. (You must place a separate alert with Innovis, a smaller credit bureau.)

An initial fraud alert lasts 90 days. If you’re an ID-theft victim, you can get a extended fraud alert that stays in place for seven years. But you may be better off with the 90-day alert because that allows you to get a free credit report from each of the four credit bureaus each time you renew the alert.

With these renewals, you can get 16 free reports per year in addition to the free annual credit report you’re already entitled to from each of the bureaus. Getting 20 free credit reports a year allows you to keep a reasonably close eye on your file year-round and eliminates the need for costly credit monitoring.

Double Protection

For anyone who is in the middle of buying a home, or some other financial transaction, you may not want to block prospective lenders from seeing your credit file. If that’s the case, opting for a fraud alert may offer reasonable protection, because lenders will be warned and you’ll receive a free credit report from each bureau.

Still, a credit freeze is the stronger option. So if you can’t lock down your credit now, plan on doing so as soon as you can.

And for maximum protection, we recommend using both freezes and fraud alerts. As the Equifax breach showed, you can’t be too careful.