By Andrew Smith, Federal Trade Commission,

director, Bureau of Consumer Protection

Gail Hillebrand, Bureau of Consumer Financial Protection, associate director,

Division of Consumer Education and Engagement

Free credit freezes and year-long fraud alerts are here, started Sept. 21, thanks to a new federal law. Here’s what you should know:

Security freezes, also known as credit freezes, restrict access to your credit file, making it harder for identity thieves to open new accounts in your name. Starting last Friday, you can freeze and unfreeze your credit file for free. You also can get a free freeze for your children under age 16. And if you are someone’s guardian, conservator or have a valid power of attorney, you can get a free freeze for that person, too.

How will these freezes work? Contact all three of the nationwide credit reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion. If you request a freeze online or by phone, the agency must place the freeze within one business day. If you request a lift of the freeze, the agency must lift it within one hour. If you make your request by mail, the agency must place or lift the freeze within three business days after it gets your request. You also can lift the freeze temporarily without a fee.

Don’t confuse freezes with locks. They work in a similar way, but locks may have monthly fees. If you want a free freeze guaranteed by federal law, then opt for a freeze, not a lock.

A fraud alert tells businesses that check your credit that they should check with you before opening a new account. Started Sept. 21, when you place a fraud alert, it will last one year instead of 90 days. Fraud alerts will still be free and identity theft victims can still get an extended fraud alert for seven years.

If you’re in the military, you’ll still have access to active-duty alerts, which let you place a fraud alert for one year, renewable for the time you’re deployed. The active-duty alert also gives you an added benefit: The credit reporting agencies will take your name off their marketing lists for prescreened credit card offers for two years (unless you ask them to add you back on).

You can place a fraud alert or active-duty alert by visiting any one of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies. The one you contact must notify the other two. You also can find links to their websites at IdentityTheft.gov/CreditBureauContacts.

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