washingtonpost.com > Business > Local Business

Consumers Can Block Access to Credit Files

By Keith L. Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 1, 2007

District residents will have a new tool to fend off identity theft starting today, under a new law that gives consumers the power to block access to their credit reports.

The provision takes effect amid what police say is a 52 percent increase in reported identity theft cases this year. Police attribute the rise to consumers recognizing the potential for abuse and becoming more aggressive in monitoring their credit reports.

The new law allows residents to place a security freeze on their reports. Loan agencies would have to get explicit permission before running checks on those consumers.

To obtain a freeze, residents must contact all three major credit reporting agencies -- TransUnion, Experian and Equifax -- each of which can charge $10. The consumer is then allowed to create a password, and any prospective lender wanting to review a frozen report would need to ask the consumer for access.

"It's like bolting your front door. You decide who gets to see your credit files for the purposes of new accounts," said Gail Hillebrand of the Consumers Union.

A similar law will take effect Jan. 1 in Maryland. Virginia has no law allowing freezes.

In the District, police said 382 cases of identity theft were reported in the first six months of the year, compared with 248 cases for the same period in 2006.

Ward 1 had the largest number of reported incidents, 81 cases. Ward 8 had the lowest, 24. Wards 2 and 3 combined had 70 cases, Ward 4 had 54 cases, Ward 5 had 54 cases, Ward 6 had 55 cases and Ward 7 had 44 cases.

Lt. Samuel Snyder, commander of the Financial Crime and Fraud Unit at the D.C. police department, said summer is often the most active period for identity theft because more people are shopping and dining. That increases the likelihood that customers might leave receipts behind, Snyder said, and pickpockets also are out to steal information from purses.

"You have to be careful with your information," Snyder said. "That means even with family members, boyfriends and girlfriends. Anyone in the same house can have access to it."

But the most common way that thieves obtain personal financial information is by combing through trash or looking in

mailboxes for letters for usable

information such as names and addresses, Social Security numbers, and the account numbers of credit cards and checking accounts.

Ten D.C. police detectives and officers are assigned to the unit, but they say they could use more.

Joe Gentile, a spokesman for Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier, said adding personnel to the unit was "under consideration."

Trisha Cain, 34, of Columbia Heights was a recent victim of identity theft. She said she received a call from the credit department at L.L. Bean in April, reporting a problem with her credit application. Cain replied that she had never applied for a credit card from the retailer.

She then ordered her credit report and discovered that someone had tried to open 38 credit cards at retailers Dress Barn, Neiman Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Victoria's Secret.

The thief was using Cain's name but her father's birthday, and that detail triggered the

inquiry from L.L. Bean. Although no charges were billed, Cain's credit score plummeted because of the numerous credit inquiries.

The new law would not make it more difficult for would-be thieves to get personal information, but it would create a hurdle in credit applications for an impersonator who did not know a consumer's credit bureau passwords.

Cain notified police and took a day off from work to call each retailer, explain what had happened and close the accounts.

Cain said she did not know how someone obtained her information. She said she shredded documents before discarding them.

Cain said she is going to sign up for the security freeze.

"It's so easy to get data out there on someone," Cain said. "From what I know about this now, I'm surprised that this isn't happening to more people."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company