Monday, November 07, 2005

More on credit freezes - and what to do if you live in Pennsylvania or another state that doesn't require them

If you want to get control over who has access to your credit report, a credit freeze is the answer. But so far, only 12 states require them - and some limit the right to a freeze to people who are already victims of identity theft.

In Pennsylvania, House Bill 1243 and Senate Bill 180 each would establish some rights to a freeze. They're better than nothing, but neither goes far enough to address the huge problem our credit-reporting system has created: Easy access to "instant" or "pre-approved" credit has led to the free flow of our credit reports, without our knowledge or permission. As many an identity-theft victim has learned belatedly, the same easy access you enjoy to instant credit in the checkout line at Home Depot or Circuit City can also allow a thief to open a new account in your name. A freeze would prevent that, because the thief would need more than the information available in your wallet or even on a stolen credit report - he'd need a secret PIN code that you would use each time you wanted to authorize a business to see your report.

New Jersey's law, which goes into effect Jan. 1, isn't perfect, but it's easily the nation's best so far. It allows any resident to establish a freeze - no need to wait till you've been a victim. It allows the freeze to be requested by phone or Internet, instead of only by certified mail. Though it initially gives the Big Three credit-reporting agencies up to three business days to temporarily lift a freeze - something you'd want to do when applying for credit, signing up for a new cell-phone service, or anything else that involves a credit check - it sets year-by-year goals for faster service. By January 2009, a consumer will be able to electronically authorize a report's release within five minutes, and to authorize its release within an hour by phone. And it allows the credit bureaus to charge just $5 apiece to lift the freeze, and nothing to establish it. By contrast, the Pennsylvania Senate Bill allows each to charge $10 to establish a freeze (except if you're already a victim, or over 62 years old) and $8 to lift it.

As far as I'm concerned, any charge for this service is too high a charge. Lenders and the credit bureaus have developed a financially beneficial system: To control their risk and generate new business, lenders already pay for our credit information - as they will any time we authorize a frozen report's release. If it costs more to run a system that doesn't do collateral damage to consumers, there's an easy solution: Raise the price to lenders.

Millions of consumers are harmed, and the rest of us put at risk, by the system these guys have established. We shouldn't have to pay to fix it.

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