A lifetime of wise spending choices and financial planning can be destroyed with the flick of a stranger's wrist.
A 2003 Federal Trade Commission study found that identity thieves, armed with their victims' personal information, have stripped 3.25 million Americans of accurate credit scores. In 2005, Florida ranked sixth in the nation in identity theft cases with 17,048 victims.
Most victims do not realize their credit scores have plummeted until long after their thieves go on shopping sprees at stores offering instant credit. How can consumers protect themselves from these silent spenders?
Floridians can exercise greater control of who accesses their credit information by signing up for a "security freeze" with a consumer credit reporting agency.
This service will prevent thieves from using stolen information to open and use credits cards by making your existing credit account unavailable for vendors checking credit records before issuing their own credit line (such as department stores, vehicle dealers and other instant credit offers).
Consumer credit reporting agencies can only release the frozen information when the customer's secret PIN number is given.
Those interested must request the service by using certified mail to credit agencies, such as Equifax, Experian and TransUnion.
A fee of $10 will be charged each time the consumer activates, removes or temporarily lifts the freeze. This fee does not apply to victims of identity theft. People 65+ also do not have to pay to freeze or permanently lift their credit freeze, but the fee still applies if they want to temporarily lift the credit freeze (for instance, to make a major purchase).
"With the leadership of Governor Bush, we were able to come to a consensus that our seniors, who are often the target of identity thieves, should be given the ability to initially place the freeze at no cost. I hope that such a financial incentive will encourage many of our citizens, age 65 and older, to take advantage of such a tremendous program," said Rep. Sandy Adams, who sponsored the bill.
Rep. Adams said she sponsored the Credit Freeze Bill (named HB 37 CS) because too many people are unknowing victims of the crime and must spend years repairing the damage done by identity thieves.
AARP Florida actively supported the bill and agrees with Rep. Adams.
"We are pleased the bill passed because it empowers consumers to take control of their own credit information," said AARP Florida Advocacy Manager Jeff Johnson. "Now consumers have the option of protecting their credit with this security feature."