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Protect yourself with a fraud alert on your credit report

Jogger checking her phone | Hero Images/Getty Images

If you think your personal information was exposed during the massive Equifax data breach, you should be looking for ways to protect yourself from identity theft.

One step is to place a fraud alert on your credit reports. It's not quite as strong a step as freezing your credit, but it's a bolder line of defense than doing nothing.

Placing a fraud alert allows you to protect against crooks opening accounts or credit cards in your name. When a fraud alert is in place, creditors will contact you to confirm your identity before issuing new credit.

What is a fraud alert?

Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, consumers have the right to place fraud alerts on their credit reports if they think they have been victims of identity theft -- or may become one. You can start by placing a 90-day initial alert and decide whether to renew before the end of this period.

How much is a fraud alert?

Fraud alerts are free.

How does a fraud alert protect you?

A fraud alert is not a bullet-proof guarantee that no credit will be issued in your name. The alert is triggered by creditors who actually review your credit report before giving an answer to a credit application, but this is not always the case.

For some kinds of accounts, including bank accounts, utilities and internet services, a review of the credit report is not usually necessary. This is why monitoring your credit report for changes is still necessary even after you have a fraud alert placed.

How do you add an initial fraud alert to your credit report?

Start by contacting one of the three main credit reporting agencies in the United States: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. You can place the alert by calling a dedicated number or by visiting the Alerts page on the website of the credit agency of your choosing. You must provide proof of your identity.

That agency is then required by federal law to contact the other two bureaus, which will place fraud alerts on your credit reports.

In the event you decide to remove a fraud alert, you'll need to send a written request and include your personal details along with copies of your driver's license and utility bills to confirm your current address.

How do you add an extended alert to your credit report?

A fraud alert for a period of seven years can be placed on your credit report if you have been a target of identity theft. To place it, you need to submit all the information required for an initial fraud alert, along with a copy of a police report that confirms that you have been a victim of identity theft.

Placing an extended fraud alert on your credit report means that you will not be considered for any preapproved credit offers for a period of five years, and all creditors will contact you via telephone before approving you for credit.

Suspect you've become a victim of identity theft? Sign up at myBankrate to get your free credit report.

How does a fraud alert differ from a credit freeze?

While creditors can still see your report under a fraud alert, they generally are forbidden from getting access to it under a freeze. This may make it more difficult for crooks to open an account in your name -- but it also makes it difficult for you to open a new account.

Some states may charge you a fee to freeze your credit -- and one to remove the freeze should you want to buy a car or apply for a mortgage. Those fees can add up if you place a freeze with all three bureaus.

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Editorial Disclaimer: The editorial content is not provided or commissioned by the credit card issuers. Opinions expressed here are author’s alone, not those of the credit card issuers, and have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the credit card issuers.

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