Victims of identity theft or fraud may feel they don’t have many options to protect themselves. An easy stopgap, however, is to place a fraud alert on your credit report.

A fraud alert can be placed fairly simply. Contact one of the three major credit bureaus to ask that they place a fraud alert on your credit report, giving potential lenders and creditors notice that someone may be trying to fraudulently use your identity to apply for credit. The three main credit bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion—the one that you report the problem to will notify the others.

It alerts them that they should do more thorough vetting, including calling to check if you’re really at a store trying to take out new credit, and verifying your identity before extending credit in your name.

Two Types Available
An initial fraud alert lasts 90 days, after which the credit bureaus will automatically remove it from your credit report. You can then request another 90-day fraud alert if you think you’re still at risk for identity theft. You can also request that the 90-day alert be removed early if you no longer need it. You must notify each bureau separately to have them remove it.

The second type is an extended fraud alert that can last up to seven years. It can only be placed on your credit report after your identity has been stolen and you’ve filed an identity theft report with the Federal Trade Commission. You may also need to file a report with local police.

An extended alert requires creditors to contact you in person or through your designated contact method to make sure you’re the person trying to request credit. You can still open a new account after the creditor contacts you.

This type of alert isn’t the same as a credit freeze, which is also called a security freeze. This prevents lenders from checking your credit to open a new account, effectively preventing new account openings.

Keep in mind that a fraud alert can be a red flag for lenders, and there’s no guarantee it will stop identity theft. After filing a fraud alert, get a free copy of your credit report from each credit bureau and check it for warning signs of fraud. These include accounts opened in your name that you don’t remember opening, or charges on your credit card that you don’t recognize.