Fraud alerts are an important tool for recovering from identity theft, when criminals may open unauthorized accounts and charge them to the limit. A fraud alert can help prevent this because it requires creditors to take extra verification steps when they find one on a credit report, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse explains. These precautions last as long as the fraud alert shows up on your records, which can be as long as seven years if you choose to extend it.
Contact one of the three major credit bureaus, which are TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. All three have 24-hour toll-free fraud reporting telephone numbers to help victims contact them easily, according to TransUnion.
Provide identifying information to the chosen credit bureau and ask the representative to put a fraud alert on your credit report. The agent needs the information to confirm your identity before adding the alert. The bureau you called will also contact the other two agencies and have them add fraud alerts to their records, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse advises. These initial alerts last for 90 days.
Report your fraud situation to the police and get a written report. Start with your local police department. The Federal Trade Commission recommends talking to another law enforcement agency, such as the state or county police, if your local officers do not help you. An official report is necessary to extend your credit bureau fraud alerts for seven years, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse explains. Otherwise, the fraud alerts will disappear in three months.
Mail a separate letter to each of the three credit bureaus requesting an extension of your fraud alert to seven years. Enclose a copy of your police report to prove that you are eligible for the extended alert.
You can remove an extended fraud alert whenever you choose during the seven-year period. The Fight Identity Theft website explains that you must remove the alerts separately through each bureau by writing individual letters. Explain your request and include your name, birth date, Social Security number and current and previous addresses in each letter. Send the letters through certified mail and ask for receipts so you know they arrived safely.
Fraud alerts are not 100 percent effective at preventing unauthorized accounts in your name. The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse warns that some creditors do not always verify applications as thoroughly as they should. A credit freeze is an alternative that keeps everyone from accessing your credit reports unless you temporarily "thaw" them by giving a special password or number, according to financial radio show host Clark Howard. Freezes must be imposed individually with each credit bureau and often carry a small fee.