A Way to Freeze Out the ID Thieves

By Michelle Singletary
Thursday, November 15, 2007

Just as the holiday shopping rush begins, all three of the major credit bureaus have decided to provide a powerful tool to protect against identity theft.

Within the last month, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion began offering consumers nationwide the option of freezing their credit reports.

A security freeze is far preferable to a "fraud alert," the step people are typically advised to take when they are victims of identity theft or think their information has been compromised.

A fraud alert simply tells potential lenders that they need to take extra care and certain actions before granting credit. The alert doesn't block access to your files, so it's not foolproof.

With a security freeze, lenders and businesses cannot get access to your credit files or scores without your authorization. This means they aren't likely to issue new credit. That in turn greatly reduces the chance that a thief will be able to get credit in your name and damage your credit profile.

Until now, if you wanted to freeze your credit reports, you had to live in a state where the practice was allowed. Laws in 39 states and the District of Columbia have given consumers that option. However, four of those states -- Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi and South Dakota -- allowed only a security freeze if a consumer was the victim of identity theft, according to Consumers Union, which has been following this issue.

For details on security freeze laws, use Consumers Union's Guide to Security Freeze Protection at http://www.FinancialPrivacyNow.org. Consumers Union has compiled a detailed list of each state's law, including when and how you can lift the freeze. The site also provides direct links to the three credit bureaus' security freeze information. Just be sure to double-check with each bureau when placing a security freeze to make sure you are sending the right information.

To implement a freeze, you will have to send a certified letter to each of the three major credit bureaus. When applying for a security freeze, you get a PIN (personal identification number) or password, which you will need to use to lift the freeze from your file. The security freeze will remain in place until you request that it be permanently removed or temporarily lifted for a specific time or for a particular creditor or company (for example, an employer or landlord wanting to check your credit history).

Experian enables consumers to lift the freeze within 15 minutes by making a request online or by phone. Equifax and TransUnion allow consumers to lift the freeze by phone or by mail, but the request can take up to three days from the date of receipt to go into effect.

Also be aware that a security freeze generally does not apply to your existing accounts. Existing creditors or affiliate companies can still access your files. A security freeze also doesn't prevent companies from peeking at your files to screen you for additional credit.

There is another catch to this protection -- the cost.

For residents of the states without security freeze laws, the credit bureaus will provide a freeze free of charge for identity theft victims. Victims also will not be charged to lift the freeze. For everyone else, there's a $10 fee for each bureau to initiate the freeze and $10 to lift it temporarily or altogether.

That's $30 to place a freeze on your credit files at all three bureaus. If you need to apply for credit later, you have to pay another $30 to unlock your files for a lender. If you don't plan properly, you would have to pay $30 each time you want a creditor to view your credit files.

In the states where a law is in place and lower fees are mandated, the credit bureaus must offer the freeze at the lower price. For example, in Montana non-identity theft victims pay $3 per credit bureau. You'll pay $5 if you are a resident of Hawaii, Maryland, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, North Dakota and West Virginia, according to data collected by Consumers Union. Indiana allows no fees. Some states also prohibit senior citizens from being charged. (Check the Consumers Union Web site to find your state's policy.)

Consumers Union is pushing to get the credit bureaus to charge all consumers no more than $5 to initiate and temporarily lift a security freeze and no fee to remove the safeguard altogether.

Considering the recent spate of lost and stolen data affecting millions of consumers, Congress should mandate that everyone be allowed to initiate a security freeze at no charge. After all, we know identity theft is a huge problem. Various private and government surveys find that consumers can spend hundreds of hours and dollars trying to undo what an identity thief has done. Making this protection free could save everybody -- consumers, companies and law enforcement officials -- a lot of money and aggravation.

¿ On the air: Michelle Singletary discusses personal finance Tuesdays on NPR's "Day to Day" program and online athttp://www.npr.org.

¿ By mail: Readers can write to her at The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.

¿ By e-mail:singletarym@washpost.com.

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