Identity Theft

Last Updated Feb 5, 2010 11:44 AM EST

How can I protect myself from identity theft?

by Jane Bryant Quinn

Put a security freeze on your credit account — the surest protection I know. It prevents anyone (you included) from opening new accounts in your name without your say-so. If you want a new account yourself, just contact the credit bureau and lift the freeze temporarily.

The rules on freezing your reports vary according to state law. Check your state at FinancialPrivacyNow.org, a site run by Consumers Union. If your state has no law, you'll be subject to the credit bureaus' rules. The bureaus can charge up to $10 for imposing the freeze and another $10 for lifting it (some states cap the fees at $5 or less). A freeze might be free if you've been a victim of identity theft. To prove it, however, you'll have to provide a police report showing that you made a formal complaint. The credit bureaus require that you ask for the freeze by mail. To unfreeze your account temporarily, you'll need to call or make an online request using a special PIN number that the bureau sent. At this writing, the process may take up to three days, so if you plan to apply for a loan or open a new credit card account, call the bureaus in advance. Some states are passing "quick thaw" laws requiring bureaus to take just 15 minutes to unfreeze accounts.

You may not be able to use a debit card to rent a car or pay for a hotel room if you freeze your reports. But a credit card will work. To set up a security freeze, check each bureau's Web site (Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax) to see what information they want. They won't accept you if you miss one little thing.

One chink in this armor: A security freeze stops thieves only from opening new accounts in your name. They can still steal the numbers on cards you own already and run up bills.

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Excerpted from Making the Most of Your Money Now by Jane Bryant Quinn

Copyright 1991, 1997, 2009, by Berrybrook Publishing, Inc. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc

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