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39 states lets consumers freeze credit files

Consumers Union offers online guide on how to prevent ID theft with a security freeze

Monday, July 16, 2007

39 States Give Consumers the Right to Freeze Credit Files To Prevent Identity Theft

Consumers Union Offers Online Guide on How
to Take Advantage of New State Security Freeze Laws

Most Americans now have a new tool that provides powerful protection to help stop identity thieves from ruining their credit records. Thirty seven states and the District of Columbia have adopted laws in recent years giving consumers the right to put a security freeze on their credit files so crooks can’t use stolen information to open fraudulent accounts.

Consumers Union, the nonprofit publisher of Consumer Reports, has created an online guide for consumers interested in learning how to take advantage of these new security freeze laws. The guide is available at www.ConsumersUnion.org/SecurityFreeze.htm and offers detailed, step-by-step instructions for each state explaining how consumers can exercise this right.

“A security freeze is a powerful tool that enables consumers to stop identity thieves cold,” said Gail Hillebrand, Director of Consumers Union’s Financial Privacy Now campaign. “With a security freeze in place, crooks cannot use stolen information about you to set up fraudulent accounts in your name.”

Every day, an average of 27,000 Americans have their identities stolen. In one-third of those cases, crooks use the information to open new accounts in their victim’s name. Armed with just your Social Security number, a thief can open fraudulent accounts and start charging away, leaving you with a damaged credit record, which may take years to repair.

A security freeze gives you the choice to “freeze” or lock access to your credit file against anyone trying to open up a new account or to get new credit in your name. When a security freeze is in place, an identity thief cannot open a new account in your name because the potential creditor or seller of services will not be able to check your credit. When you are applying for credit, you can lift the freeze temporarily using a PIN so legitimate applications for credit or services can be processed.

Thirty one states and Washington D.C. currently make the security freeze choice available to everyone, whether or not he or she has been a victim of identity theft. Six other states currently limit the protection to identity theft victims. Two of these states have recently passed legislation that will soon expand the protection to all consumers. Most states that offer a security freeze make it free to identity-theft victims, and some provide it at no charge to seniors.

For those consumers who want the freeze but aren’t victims of identity theft, most state security freeze laws allow each of the three major credit bureaus to charge $5 to $10 to initiate the protection or to lift the freeze. The best state laws keep all fees at $5 or less and allow consumers to temporarily lift or remove the freeze without charge. States with the most user-friendly laws allow consumers to request this protection by e-mail or by phone, and beginning in September 2008, will require credit bureaus to lift the freeze within 15 minutes of a request.

Security freeze laws that apply to all consumers have been adopted in California, Colorado, Connecticut, Delaware, Florida, Hawaii, Indiana, Illinois, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Minnesota, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, New York, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Washington, D.C., West Virginia, Wisconsin, and Wyoming. Security freeze bills covering all consumers have been passed in Massachusetts and Oregon and await action by governors in those states.

Arkansas, Kansas, Mississippi, South Dakota, Texas, and Washington currently offer identity theft victims the right to a security freeze. Texas has passed legislation that will expand the right to all consumers beginning September 1, 2007. Lawmakers in Washington also recently strengthened the state’s law so that it will cover all consumers beginning July 1, 2008.

“Consumers in most states now have the ability to prevent one of the most damaging kinds of identity theft,” said Hillebrand. “If Congress decides to enact a security freeze law, it should model it after the best state laws that provide this protection at low-cost and make it easy for consumers to use this safeguard. Stronger state laws should be allowed to operate under any new federal protection.”

Additional information about security freeze laws, can be found on the Federal Trade Commission’s web site at: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/credit-freeze.html

Gail Hillebrand or Michelle Jun: 415-431-6747