This article appears in Winter Boomers magazine.

One of the best ways to protect yourself from identity theft is now free. An update to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act allows consumers to freeze and unfreeze their credit and activate one-year fraud alerts at no charge.

“Without a credit freeze, your credit score and reports can be requested by any vendor and company anytime, which creates lots of opportunities for identity thieves,” said Florian Schaub, assistant professor in the School of Information and assistant professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Michigan.

The times when you actually need someone to check your credit are rare and include buying a home, renting an apartment, and getting a mobile contract or credit card.

If you haven’t done so, you should immediately place a credit freeze with all three big credit bureaus, Schaub said.

“Credit freezes substantially reduce the risk of identity theft. Once you’ve done that for yourself, do the same for your partner and your children. The new law creates the right for consumers to freeze credit for minors,” Schaub said.

It is easy to confuse credit freezes and fraud alerts. Fraud alerts just place a warning on your credit report asking companies to verify their identity, which they may or may not do, but a fraud alert doesn’t prevent access to your credit report.

“In contrast, a credit freeze prevents access to your credit report in almost all cases,” Schaub said.

The law mandates that a freeze be lifted in less than an hour, but to be safe, request it further in advance in case the company fails to comply, said Yixin Zou, a second-year Ph.D. student at University of Michigan’s School of Information. Consumer Reports suggests lifting a freeze about three business days before needed.

Schaub and Zou recently published research on the Equifax data breach in 2017 that showed, among other things, consumers didn’t understand what a credit freeze was and some did not use it because of cost.