(Originally posted in November 2007. Updated as of December 2010.)
Identity theft continues to be one of the fastest growing crimes in the country. There are many types of identity theft, but one of the worst is when someone uses your personal information to borrow money or establish credit.
Sadly, the 3 major credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, have done little to help us prevent identity theft before it happens. In fact, they make money by selling services that inform you if someone has accessed your credit file...after the fact.
But over the last eight years, 47 states have passed laws that REQUIRE credit bureaus to offer "security freezes" to consumers that prevent access to your credit records. A crook cannot take out a loan in your name if your file cannot be accessed. Security freezes go a step further than "fraud alerts" offered by the bureaus that tell the lender to double check your identity. The main problem with fraud alerts is that no law says the creditor must contact you.
California's security freeze law has been in place since January 2003. Security freezes are free to ID theft victims, $10 per credit bureau for those under 65 and $5 per credit bureau for those 65 and older. It costs another $10 ($5 to 65 and older) to "unlock" your account, either temporarily, for a particular creditor, or permanently.
It takes a little work to set up your security freeze as the bureaus require a written request sent by certified mail. The State of California provides guidance and sample letters for this purpose at www.consumer.ftc.gov/articles/0279-extended-fraud-alerts-and-credit-freezes. After registering, each credit bureau will send you a confirmation letter with instructions on how to remove the freeze. Security freeze information is also available on the Experian, TransUnion and Equifax websites by clicking the links in this sentence.
It may be a pain in the neck to set up a security freeze but there is no better way to stop credit fraud in its tracks. And if you need credit of your own while on a security freeze (e.g. home refinance, car loan, new credit card), you'll need to remove the freeze beforehand.
ID THEFT SERVICES
You may have seen ads from a company called LifeLock where the CEO shows his Social Security Number on the side of a truck to demonstrate how confident he is that his product prevents ID theft. For $10/month or $110/year, LifeLock sets and resets fraud alerts at each credit bureau on your behalf every 3 months. They also offer to pay up to $1 million to fix your ID theft issue if it happens while using their service. Sounds convenient and definitely better than doing nothing, but it is more expensive and still less effective than a credit freeze.
CREDIT MONITORING SERVICES
The credit bureaus offer credit monitoring services that tell you, generally after the fact, if someone has done something fishy. Experian offers ProtectMyID, Equifax offers ID Patrol and Trans Union offers TrueCredit. ID Patrol and TrueCredit allow you to lock and unlock your credit reports, which is a nice feature to have. But of course you can do this yourself for ALL 3 bureaus at a fraction of the cost of these services.
Aside from the above, you should also do the other things we've all read to help reduce ID theft...don't give out personal information, shred personal documents, watch out for scams/phishing, don't use public computers to log in to financial websites, etc. (click here for the full details on the Federal Trade Commission website). But if you really want to sleep better at night, consider putting a security freeze on your credit.
Additional identify theft resources and information at www.comparitech.com/identity-theft-protection/identity-fraud-protection-resources.