Credit Freeze Can Save You in Long Run, Cost You Now; the Identity-Theft Safeguard Is Available, but It's Not the Best Way for All

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Byline: DAVID BAUERLEIN

Since last summer, Florida residents worried about being burned by identity theft have been able to put their credit report in a deep freeze.

By paying up to $30, residents can put a hold, known as a security freeze, on the reports so scammers can't open credit accounts in their name.

The Georgia legislature is considering a similar law for its residents. If approved this session, Georgia would join 25 other states that have enacted laws allowing the protection of a freeze.

When the freeze is in place, an identity thief who tries to get a loan, credit card or utility service will run into a big roadblock. Companies considering the application will first pull the credit report, but they will see it's frozen. Only someone with a personal identification number can "thaw" the report, so without that number, the thief will be out of luck.

Consumers considering the freeze should make sure it's the best way for them to fight identity theft, said Jay Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center, a California nonprofit organization.

SOME SAFEGUARDS ARE FREE

In recent years, government programs and private companies have rolled out an array of programs that warn consumers when someone is trying to rip them off by assuming their identity. Some anti-theft offers are free, while others cost a monthly fee. The freeze "is not the be-all, end-all," Foley said.

In 2006, identity thieves struck 17,780 times in Florida, which was a 26 percent increase since 2003, according to a newly released report by Consumer Sentinel. In Georgia last year, there were 8,084 identity theft cases, a 32 percent increase since 2003, said Consumer Sentinel, which collects fraud information nationwide for law enforcement.

Florida government doesn't keep tabs on how many residents have applied for a freeze since last July. Consumers apply directly to the credit bureaus, which can charge up to $10 for the freeze. To cover the bases, a consumer would need to place a freeze with the three major companies - Experian, Equifax and TransUnion - for a total cost of up to $30. The companies then give the consumer an identification number for unfreezing the account.

The companies can each charge up to $10 for "thawing" the report. Florida law gives the companies up to three days to unblock the report, so consumers with a freeze must plan in advance before seeking a loan.

SENIORS RECEIVE BREAK ON COST

Lt. Clay Chandler of the Clay County Sheriff's Office said most people have never heard about the freeze when he talks to community groups. He said the benefits far outweigh any cost and inconvenience.

"It's something that's going to be paying dividends over the long run," he said.

Florida residents who are 65 or older don't have to pay the initial fee for placing a freeze. However, they would still pay a fee for any thaws. Victims of identity theft also can get the start-up fee waived if they provide documentation, such as law enforcement records. …