The advantages of socializing and doing business online are significant and numerous, but since the dawn of the digital age, cyber-convenience has been accompanied by cybercrime. The situation isn’t likely to improve soon, so it’s wise to safeguard your passwords, protect your PINs, and be watchful for signs of identity theft and fraud.
You also should be aware of an effective, and free, method to protect your credit reports against thieves seeking or using credit in your name: the fraud alert.
A fraud alert is a kind of message added to credit reports that indicates that fraud may be in the works. A fraud alert instructs any party that accesses the credit report—such as a lender who’s received a potentially bogus credit application—that they need to verify the identity of the person applying for the loan, credit card, or other benefit. In fact, the Fair Credit Reporting Act requires any “user” of a credit report containing a fraud alert to contact the consumer either via phone or some other reasonable method to confirm that an application is not fraudulent. There are three different types of fraud alerts that can be added to credit reports:
- Initial fraud alert. The initial alert is the easiest to add, and it’s a good precaution even if you only suspect, but are not yet certain, fraud has occurred. All you have to do is contact any one of the three national credit reporting companies (CRCs)—Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion—and request that the alert be added. Whichever CRC you contact must then share the request with the other two CRCs. So, all you have to do is add the alert to one of your credit reports and it will end up on all three. You can add an initial fraud alert here, here, or here. The initial alert will last 90 days and you do not have to certify that you’ve been the victim of fraud in order to add this alert.
- Extended fraud alert. If you know you have been a victim of fraud, then you can add an extended alert, which will remain on your credit reports for 7 years. You will be required to certify you’ve been victimized by fraud, by completing and submitting an identity theft report that includes a copy of a police report or other report to law enforcement. As with the initial report, you only have to request this alert from one of the CRCs, and that CRC will notify the other two. Here’s an example of a form you can use to place an extended fraud alert.
- Active-duty fraud alert. The active-duty alert is for active military service members. It remains on your credit reports for one year. It’s very much like the initial fraud alert, but lasts longer in recognition of the fact that service members on assignment around the world may need extra time to track down and document fraudulent activity. And again, all you have to do is add the alert to one of your credit reports and it will end up on all three.
You can learn more about adding the fraud alerts to your credit reports here, including the various forms of identification the credit bureaus will accept.