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Credit report freeze can head off ID thieves

7:17 PM, Nov. 2, 2013  |  Comments
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Identity theft is a growing concern for many Americans, and it should be. According to the FTC, it's the fastest-growing crime in the country. But the news isn't all bad.

Consumers have access to a powerful tool - the security freeze - to lock down their credit reports, preventing identity thieves from establishing new lines of credit in their names.

A security freeze will not impact your credit score or impair your ability to use your existing credit cards. A freeze locks down your credit reports, used to determine your credit worthiness, not your actual credit.

With your credit reports on ice, opening new credit will require some minimal advanced planning by you, but will be impossible for identity thieves. Opening store credit cards on impulse may no longer be an option. You'll need to request a temporary "thaw" with all three credit bureaus to allow lenders to access your reports, which can take about 20 minutes if done online. And, reports can be set to automatically re-freeze on a date you select.

Keep in mind that it's not just lenders that use your credit report. Insurance companies, employers, landlords and cellphone companies are among other entities that may be checking out your credit score. A security freeze may delay, interfere with, or prohibit the timely approval of any services from them. So, a security freeze might not be for everyone, while for others (like your minor children), it makes good sense.

Security freezes are free for identity theft victims. In Wisconsin, the fee for non-victims is $10 for each credit bureau. You'll need to hold on to your login credentials with each bureau to thaw your reports. A lost PIN or user ID can be difficult and time consuming to retrieve. Secure your login information with each bureau as you would your birth certificate or other important documents.

Consumers could also choose a fraud alert, which is less drastic, but potentially less effective. A fraud alert flags your credit reports, alerting potential lenders to verify the identity of anyone attempting to open an account in your name. Fraud alerts are free and don't interfere with your ability to receive instant credit. However, fraud alerts rely entirely on the diligence of the person performing the credit check. Fraud alerts are also temporary, and must be reinstated every 90 days in most cases.

It's important to remember that while a security freeze or a fraud alert can help protect your from identity theft, neither is foolproof. They will not prevent all forms of identity theft, and can't help you if any existing account has been compromised. Thus, if your credit cards are lost or stolen, you're out of luck. Check your credit reports at www.annualcreditreport.com for unauthorized charges or other signs of fraud.

To be effective, a freeze must be set up with all three credit bureaus:

? Experian: www.experian.com/freeze/center.html

? Transunion: https://freeze.transunion.com

? Equifax: www.freeze.equifax.com

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