Fraud Alerts were initially established as a way for victims to flag their credit, and prevent more accounts being opened in a victim's name. When a fraud alert is in place, a creditor establishing a new account has to confirm that the application is legitimate, usually by calling a telephone number that has been provided in the alert. The intention is to prevent "instant credit" from being provided without your approval. An initial fraud alert is temporary - 90 days - and is intended to give you a window of opportunity with which to check your credit report for signs of tampering and either confirm or rule out an identity theft incident. If you discover you are indeed a victim, the fraud alert can be extended up to seven years by making a written request and providing proof of the identity theft - such as your police report.

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To establish a fraud alert, you can call the toll-free number of one of the three credit bureaus and report that you suspect or know you have been a victim of ID theft. If you contact one bureau, they are obligated to notify the other two. However, it's not a bad idea to contact all three, if only for your own peace of mind.

Trans Union: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013

You are entitled to a free copy of your credit report from each reporting bureau as soon as you have placed your fraud alert on file. You may also request to only have the last four digits of your social security number appear on your credit reports if you ask. Make sure that all the information listed on your credit reports is correct, and to follow up with companies of unexplained accounts, or accounts that have been tampered with to remove those inconsistencies. You may get faster results if you send your police Identity Theft Report with a cover letter when following up with your creditors.

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