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This article was last updated Jun 04, 2020. Terms and conditions may have changed. For the most accurate information, please consult the issuer website.
Whether you’ve been the victim of identity theft or lost sensitive documents, you need to take proactive steps to protect yourself. That could include placing a fraud alert on your credit reports, which can make it harder for the bad guys to open new accounts with your information. Learn what a fraud alert is, how to set it up with the credit bureaus, and additional protections to consider.
- What is a fraud alert?
- Fraud alert vs. credit freeze
- Fraud protections offered by your card issuer
- How to place a fraud alert on your credit reports
- Removing a fraud alert from your credit reports
- Is a fraud alert right for you?
What is a fraud alert?
A fraud alert on your credit report notifies lenders, including credit card issuers, that you have been a victim of identity theft or fraud. As a result, a potential lender should take additional steps in verifying your identity before extending you a line of credit or loan.
Plus, once you contact any of the three credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — that bureau must inform the other two, meaning a fraud alert will be placed on all three of your reports.
There are three types of fraud alerts:
- Initial Fraud Alert. This is also known as an initial security alert or a temporary fraud alert, and will last for a year. You can place a new fraud alert after the first one expires.
- Extended Fraud Alert. Since this type of alert is only available to victims of identity theft, you’ll need an Identity Theft Report to request it. The alert lasts for seven years.
- Active Duty Fraud Alert. Use this if you’re a military member on active duty. You’ll have to submit proof of your military orders with this request. The alert lasts for one year.
It should be noted that placing a fraud alert is free. You’re also entitled to a copy of your credit report for free from each bureau once a year through annualcreditreport.com. Due to the COVID-19 crisis, the credit bureaus are also offering free credit reports weekly rather than annually through April 2021.
If you’re concerned information such as your Social Security number has gotten into the wrong hands, placing a fraud alert on your credit reports is time well spent. You might also want to consider a credit freeze, which is a more serious protection step.
Fraud alert vs. credit freeze
A credit freeze, also called a security freeze, locks up your credit files and must be done with each bureau separately. Once you’ve frozen your credit, no new accounts can be opened without you unlocking your credit files first. Like fraud alerts, credit freezes are available for free.
But while a fraud alert expires after one year (in the case of an initial alert) or seven years (in the case of an extended alert), your credit will stay frozen until you unfreeze it.
Here’s how to contact each credit bureau online or by phone to place a credit freeze:
Because a credit freeze is free, there’s no reason not to freeze your credit if you’re concerned your information might have been compromised or if you just want to control who can access your credit files. When you need to lift a freeze, you have the option of doing so permanently or temporarily. You may need to provide a PIN or password that you created when you placed the freeze.
There are regulations on how quickly a freeze must be removed once you make the request:
- When you make the request by telephone or electronically, the credit bureau must remove the freeze within one hour of receiving the request.
- When you make the request by mail, the credit bureau must remove the freeze within three business days after receiving the request.
Remember that if you want your credit unfrozen with all three bureaus, you’ll need to make the request separately with each one. However, if you know which bureau a creditor intends to pull your credit report from, you have the option of unfreezing your credit with just the one bureau.
Neither a fraud alert nor a credit freeze will hurt your credit score.
A third type of protection is a credit lock, which is a service offered by each of the bureaus. Equifax and TransUnion offer credit locking for free, while Experian offers it as part of a paid subscription. Where credit locks may be more convenient than a fraud alert or credit freeze is that consumers can unlock access to their credit reports via a computer or mobile app without a PIN or password.
Note that while a credit freeze will prevent new accounts being opened with your information, it won’t prevent bad actors from hacking your current accounts. For that reason, it’s important to make use of protections offered by your card issuer, some of which are detailed below.
Protections offered by your card issuer
Credit card issuers offer a variety of protections aimed at preventing fraud, such as:
- The ability to freeze your card. Some issuers, such as Discover, will let you “freeze” or “lock” your card, preventing new transactions. This is useful if you misplace your card. Note that some transactions, such as recurring bills, will likely still process.
- Alerts by text or email when fraud is suspected. You may have to opt in to get these alerts. When a transaction is deemed suspicious, you’ll be notified — and may be asked to confirm whether or not it was you making the purchase.
- Customizable alerts based on spending thresholds. Your issuer may allow you to set spending thresholds, so when that amount is exceeded, you get a notification, or you can request a text sent anytime the card is used.
How to place a fraud alert on your credit reports
You can place a fraud alert with any of the bureaus online or by calling each credit bureau:
For example, here’s what the Experian interface looks like:
After selecting the “add a fraud alert” option, you’ll be able to select what type of fraud alert you want to request. From there, you’ll be asked to enter personal information:
Removing a fraud alert from your credit reports
The credit bureaus may allow you to request a fraud alert removal online, or you may have to mail in a request. The same web pages with information on placing fraud alerts have instructions on removing them as well. If you don’t remove an alert, it will expire after one year (for initial alerts and active duty alerts) or after seven years (for extended alerts).
Equifax and Experian ask you to mail requests for removal to the following addresses:
Equifax Information Services LLC
P.O. Box 105069
Atlanta, GA 30348
P.O. Box 9554
Allen, TX 75013
However, TransUnion promotes removing a fraud alert online as the easiest way to do so.
Unlike placing a fraud alert, which only requires you to contact one bureau, you’ll need to contact each one separately if you want to remove a fraud alert before it expires.
Is a fraud alert right for you?
Placing a fraud alert on your credit report is a smart move if you have any reason to think your information is at risk. It may require a small amount of extra effort if you want to apply for new credit, because you’ll have to verify your information with the lender — but that’s a small price to pay for peace of mind and additional security.