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Warning: Your 3-month Equifax fraud alert is expiring

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By Janna Herron/ValuePenguin

It has been three months since the massive Equifax (EFX) breach was disclosed, and the initial fraud alerts Americans put on their credit reports for protection are starting to expire. What should you do now?

To recap: In September, the national credit bureau reported a major hack that exposed the names, Social Security numbers, birth dates and addresses of 145.5 million Americans, or more than half of the country's adult population. Criminals could use that information to open accounts in your name.

In response, ValuePenguin recommended that consumers place a fraud alert on their TransUnion (TRU), Equifax and Experian (EXPGY) credit reports as a first line of defense. An alert requires lenders to contact you to determine if any new credit application is valid.

So far, the fallout for consumers has been limited. In a November earnings call, Equifax said it had no evidence of nefarious activity arising from the data stolen in the breach. It continues to monitor for fraudulent use of stolen data. But fraudsters have been known to sit on personal data for long stretches before using the information fraudulently.

The problem is that the fraud alerts placed on reports are good for only 90 days -- which means those placed right after Equifax's Sept. 7 breach disclosure have expired, or will so soon. To get an extended seven-year alert, you must provide a police report or affidavit showing that you are an ID theft victim.

That leaves you with two choices: To put another fraud alert on your report and, come March, do it again, and so on. Or consider a more permanent solution.

Should you consider a credit freeze?

"This is a great time to ditch the fraud alert and go straight to the credit freeze," said credit expert John Ulzheimer, who previously worked for Equifax and FICO. "This will allow you to forgo having to replace the freeze every 90 days in perpetuity."

Safer than an alert, a credit freeze keeps lenders from pulling your credit report altogether, a necessary step to process a credit application. Freezes are permanent until you unfreeze your reports to allow lenders access. They also must be placed separately at each bureau.

Only about 2 percent of Americans placed a freeze or lock on their credit reports following the Equifax hack, TransUnion reported in its third-quarter earnings call in late October.

The cons of credit freezes

There is some inconvenience to a freeze. While anecdotal evidence suggests that it takes about 15 minutes to unfreeze a report, Experian still recommends doing it three days before submitting an application to a lender to make sure the unfreeze goes through.

Another downside is that, depending on where you live, it may cost you money to freeze, and then unfreeze, your credit reports to grant access to lenders when you apply for credit. State law dictates the maximum amount that a bureau can charge for these services. ValuePenguin gathered the fee data on each state here.

Fortunately, Equifax is offering free credit freezes until the end of January 2018 as part of its remediation efforts, though in many states you will still need to pay both Experian and TransUnion to initiate freezes.

Still, Ulzheimer called a credit freeze "very empowering," and added that it "puts you in complete control over who has access to your credit reports and when. It's worth every cent."

Other options

If you still would like to avoid credit freezes but want to increase the security of your financial identity, here are two other options to consider.

Credit monitoring: If you pair credit monitoring with a fraud alert -- of course, you will have to keep renewing the alert -- this can be an effective way to detect fraud soon after it's happened. These services alert you when there is a change to your three credit report and provide help with remediation efforts.

Equifax is still offering its TrustedID Premier, which monitors all three of your credit reports. Consumers can sign up for free for one year until the end of January 2018.

Credit locks: You can also consider using a credit lock, which is as secure as a freeze, but is touted to be more convenient, especially when you're applying for credit. Typically, Experian advertises that you can unlock "instantly," while TransUnion says you can lock or unlock your report "with a single swipe or click."

TransUnion provides a no-cost lock/unlock feature for its report through its TrueIdentity service. Experian offers a lock function with its IdentityWorks Premium service that costs $19.99 a month after one free month. Starting in February 2018, Equifax says it will offer a free lock/unlock service for its report. Until then, use a fraud alert on your report.

This article originally appeared on ValuePenguin

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