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When you’re worried about identity theft, the simplest way to add a layer of protection to your credit file is a fraud alert. It’s a free, 90-day service that requires businesses to take extra care when issuing credit in your name.

What a fraud alert requires

When you have a fraud alert, a business must use “reasonable policies and procedures to form a reasonable belief” that the person applying for credit in your name is actually you.

Businesses handling a credit application may try to contact you directly, usually by phone, or may hire an identity verification service.

You’ll almost certainly be unable to get ‘instant credit,’ such as a store card offered at the register.

You’ll almost certainly be unable to get “instant credit,” such as a store card offered at the register. It also may delay the process of getting a mortgage or car loan.

Choosing between an alert and something stronger

If you’re worried about identity theft — let’s say your Social Security card is missing or you lost your wallet — a fraud alert protects your credit while you track down your misplaced wallet or card.

Stronger, longer-lasting protections are available in the form of a credit freeze or credit lock.

However, stronger, longer-lasting protections are available in the form of a credit freeze or credit lock. Rather than requiring extra verification before a business accesses your credit file, they make it inaccessible unless you unfreeze or unlock it.

Mike Litt, consumer program advocate at U.S. PIRG, a federation of nonprofits that push for policy change, recommends fraud alerts for anyone who chooses not to freeze their credit. It’s quicker than a freeze or lock, because you have to contact just one agency, and it’s free.

>> MORE: Credit freeze and credit lock: What’s the difference?

How to apply a fraud alert

You can call, go online or write to any one of the three major credit bureaus: Experian, TransUnion and Equifax. Whichever bureau you contact will notify the other two:

Experian: 888-397-3742; Experian, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion: 800-680-7289; TransUnion Fraud Victim Assistance Department, P.O. Box 2000, Chester, PA 19016

Equifax: 888-766-0008; Equifax Consumer Fraud Division, P.O. Box 740256, Atlanta, GA 30374

Make sure the credit bureau has correct contact information for you.

The alert will expire in 90 days; make a note of that date in case you want to renew it.

Each credit bureau should contact you to confirm the alert and offer instructions on how to get a free copy of your credit report in addition to the one you can get every 12 months by using AnnualCreditReport.com. Keep the letter or email verifying the alert in case a lender doesn’t follow the requirements and someone opens a fraudulent account.

Special fraud alerts

If you have been a victim of identity theft or are serving in the military, you may be eligible for an alert lasting longer than 90 days.

Extended alerts: If you’ve created an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission, you’re eligible for a seven-year alert. Extended fraud alerts also come with additional free credit reports.

Alerts for military: Service members can place an active-duty credit alert to protect their credit while they’re deployed. It lasts one year and can be renewed to match the period of deployment.

How to renew or lift a fraud alert

You can lift a fraud alert early by calling one credit bureau and providing identifying information. However, there’s little reason to do so. Alerts expire on their own unless you renew them. Mark your calendar and contact one of the credit bureaus if you wish to extend the protection.

Because alerts are the lowest level of added protection and expire, if you find yourself continually renewing an alert, consider stepping up to a lock or freeze.

Stay vigilant

Fraud alerts, credit freezes and locks all aim to prevent new accounts from being opened fraudulently. They don’t prevent fraudulent charges from being made on an account you’ve already opened.

Stay on the lookout for fraud in your existing accounts:

  • Check credit card statements for charges you don’t recognize. Often there’s a phone number listed with the merchant name on transactions, so you can investigate anything that looks off.
  • Sign up for text or email alerts about credit transactions. Many issuers let you set a transaction amount so you’re alerted to anything over that.

If you see a charge you think isn’t yours, call your issuer right away to dispute it. Your card issuer can’t charge interest or fees on the transaction while it’s being investigated.

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