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Released: May 27, 2011
Help Desk FAQ
What’s the difference between a security freeze and a fraud alert?
Both a fraud alert and a credit freeze are tools used to prevent identity theft.
A fraud alert is appropriate if you believe you may be at higher risk of identity theft. It makes it more difficult for someone to open new credit in your name by requiring lenders to take extra precautions to verify your identity. Anyone can place a 90-day initial fraud alert, at no charge, which can be renewed in 90-day intervals. Contact one of the three credit bureaus (www.equifax.com or 800-525-6285; www.experian.com or 888-397-3742; www.transunion.com or 800-680-7289), which will notify the others. You’re entitled to one free copy of your credit report from each agency in addition to your free copy each 12 months through www.annualcreditreport.com.
Identity theft victims have the option to place an extended fraud alert, which stays on file for seven years. To place an extended fraud alert, submit a copy of your police report or the printed ID Theft Complaint available from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) at http://www.ftc.gov along with your request.
Learn more about fraud alerts at http://www.consumer-action.org/modules/articles/id_theft_account_fraud
A security freeze is appropriate if you’re already a victim of identity theft or are at very high risk of becoming one. When you freeze your credit reports with all three credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) they become inaccessible unless you unfreeze them using a password or PIN (personal identification number). If a creditor cannot access your credit report or score when it receives an application for credit, it will reject the request. This keeps identity thieves from opening new credit in your name.
While a security freeze provides strong protection against identity theft, there are some drawbacks. First, many states allow the three credit reporting agencies to charge a fee of up to $20 each to place a freeze. Also, your reports are off limits to anyone who uses credit reports and scores in their decision-making process—that includes insurance companies, landlords, employers doing a background check, cell phone companies, and utilities. You can lift the freeze, but unless you’re a victim of identity theft, there may be a fee each time you do so. (In most cases, placing and lifting a security freeze is free for victims of ID theft.) And, depending on what state you live in, it can take anywhere from 15 minutes to three days for the freeze to be lifted.
Consumers Union provides an online state-by-state list of security freeze laws, maximum allowable fees, and agency instructions at www.financialprivacynow.org.
Learn more about freezing your credit file by reading our Credit Freeze publication.
Neither an alert nor a freeze can prevent fraud involving your existing accounts.
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