Consumers worried about identity theft after the Equifax data breach are being encouraged by all three credit bureaus to use a credit lock rather than a credit freeze. 

But although credit locks and freezes do essentially the same thing—prevent anyone from opening an account in your name—there are some important differences to keep in mind when deciding which to use (you can’t do both). In most cases a credit freeze offers better protections against fraud and can be cheaper, making it the best option. 

The credit bureaus, however, are trying to push consumers into credit locks, citing their convenience and offering special deals. Equifax, for instance, said Wednesday that it would offer a new type of credit lock free for life. 

Here’s a look at the key differences between a credit lock and credit freeze and why a freeze might be your best choice. 

Stiffer Protections

Perhaps the main reason a security freeze is the better option is that its promise to guard your credit accounts is guaranteed by law, according to Christina Tetreault, a staff attorney on the financial services team at Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization arm of Consumer Reports. 

In contrast, a credit lock is simply an agreement between you and the credit monitoring company.

“Having a contractual agreement is not as strong as having protections under law,” Tetreault says. “The contract may be unclear, may include provisions that allow the other party to change it, or include provisions that you may be better off not agreeing to, such as an arbitration agreement,” she says.

More on the Equifax Breach

An arbitration agreement that could have prohibited consumers from participating in a class-action suit was initially included in the terms and conditions of Equifax’s TrustedID Premier, but after outraged reaction from consumers the company said it is no longer in effect.  

It’s not clear whether consumers would have to agree to an arbitration agreement if they sign up for the new Equifax credit lock. In a statement to Consumer Reports, an Equifax spokesperson did not respond to a question about whether an agreement to arbitrate would be required.

Because security freezes are covered by state law, if something goes wrong—for example, if credit accounts are fraudulently accessed anyway—consumers will be protected from any financial liability, says Chi Chi Wu, staff attorney focused on consumer credit issues at the National Consumer Law Center, an advocacy group.

“With locks it’s not clear who would be liable” for any losses, she says.  

Wu says that because these products are so new and there are still many unknowns, she would recommend that consumers freeze their credit rather than lock it.

The Question of Convenience

Activating and lifting a security freeze can be a little time-consuming. The credit reporting bureaus say processing the request to freeze generally takes 24 to 48 hours. 

You receive a personal identification number at the time your freeze goes into effect, in case you want to temporarily lift it in the future. When you decide to lift a freeze, you’ll have to make the request with each of the credit bureaus. You’ll also need to remember your PIN. The bureaus say they need 24 to 48 hours to process the request.

A credit lock on the other hand, which you initiate using an app on your smartphone with no PIN, generally happens right away. 

Although that may seem convenient, only two credit monitoring bureaus—TransUnion and Experian—offer instantaneous credit locks. Equifax says its lock product included in TrustedID Premier requires 24 to 48 hours for a request to be processed, the same as for a freeze. And you can’t lock and freeze at the same time. It’s one or the other.

Cost Considerations

Only two credit monitoring bureaus, TransUnion and now Equifax, offer free credit-lock products. But locking down only two of the three main credit reports isn’t enough. The experts say you have to lock all three.

Not doing so is “like locking your front door but leaving your back door open,” Wu says. 

The new Equifax credit lock, which will be available by Jan. 31, seems to be different from the credit lock that is currently included in the company’s TrustedID Premier identity-theft protection service, which it is offering free for one year and includes credit monitoring, fraud alerts, and other features. 

Experian offers a subscription-based product called CreditLock through CreditWorks. It costs $5 for your first month of access and $25 per month thereafter.

And although a credit freeze isn’t free, the cost of freezing and then temporarily lifting the freeze is likely to be lower than paying Experian’s monthly fee indefinitely. Federal law caps what credit bureaus can charge at $10 per instance, and many states set that price lower. 

But unlike a freeze, Experian’s credit lock product also includes daily credit monitoring and alerts you if someone applies for credit while the report is locked, as well as access to your FICO Score 8 and Experian report. 

However, Consumers Union doesn’t recommend paying for credit monitoring. “What it does, consumers can usually do for free,” Tetreault says.

Plus, with a credit freeze you won’t be targeted by ads.

“These services may allow the credit reporting agency to market to consumers more aggressively for products that they may not need and/or shouldn’t pay for,” Tetreault says.