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September 28, 2021

Keeping your identity your own

About five years ago. I was checking my credit card account when I noticed a purchase in Albany, New York, with a vendor I didn’t recognize. Since I haven’t been to Albany in about 40 years, I had a sneaky suspicion something was awry. It turned out to be a purchase at an adult bookstore.
The credit card company took care of the problem, and I never heard about it again. But how did someone in Albany get my credit card number and name? The best guess is that an employee of some company where I used my credit card sold my information after “skimming” the card.
There are two basic ways to prevent identify theft:
First, make it more difficult for thieves to find your information — shred personal information, get a locked mailbox, only order online through a secure Web site, never respond to solicitations over the Internet, etc. That said, unless you’re willing to live in a cave, there’s just no way to prevent all personal information from falling into the hands of a determined slimeball.
The real solution, and second way to prevent identity theft, is to make the stolen information harder to use. This is where the law is helpful. As of 2003, California, as part of the California Consumer Credit Reporting Agencies Act, allows you to put a permanent credit freeze on your credit files preventing the credit bureaus, such as Experian, Equifax and TransUnion, from releasing any credit information without your express approval. It costs $10 to do this with each credit bureau and costs another $10 to unfreeze.
So, a husband and wife will pay $60 to freeze both of their credit histories with the three credit bureaus. If that same husband and wife wants to get new credit somewhere, they will have to pay another $10 per person per credit bureau to unfreeze their information. Further details can be found at the California Office of Information Security & Privacy Protection at www.oispp.ca.gov.
Also in 2003, the feds required the credit bureaus to allow you to put a fraud alert on credit reports. As distinguished from a credit freeze, a fraud alert accompanies a credit report and requires lenders to verify your identity before issuing credit in your name. Unfortunately, this alert is temporary, expiring after 90 days.
True to our entrepreneurial bent, a number of companies emerged that automatically renew these alerts, effectively making them permanent. These companies, such as Lifelock, charge a monthly fee, around $10. In a clever, but overconfident advertising gimmick, the president of Lifelock brazenly advertises his Social Security number in ads, daring thieves to try to steal his identity. So they did.
It is true that issuing a fraud alert or a credit freeze will make it harder for a thief to capitalize on stolen identity information, but they aren’t foolproof. Although the vast majority of vendors in our country will not extend credit without first checking your credit history — and only a suicidal businessperson fails to verify a person’s identity upon receiving a fraud alert — a few businesses have been known to foolishly extend credit without verification. And, in fact, Lifelock’s president was embarrassed when this happened to him, although the amount lost was minor and the foolish business had to cover the lost dollars.
Admittedly, these devices make getting new credit somewhat inconvenient, but despite the occasional determined thief, they remain exceptionally good weapons in preventing losses due to identity theft.
Gary Redenbacher of Scotts Valley is an attorney in private practice. Contact him at [email protected]

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