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Protect your identity
You may soon lose the ability to easily put a freeze your credit; here are ways to compensate.
By Gerri Willis, CNN

NEW YORK (CNN) - One of the few protections available to consumers worried about their identity could be disappearing. This week, Congress may be tightening requirements for people who want to put a freeze on their credit account.

In today's Five Tips we'll tell you what you need to know to protect your information.

1: Get the lowdown

This bill, which is part of the Financial Data Protection Act of 2006, is expected to be voted on by the House of Representatives this week. It would pre-empt laws in 18 states that allow anyone to freeze their own credit. Under this bill, only victims of ID theft will be able to use this tool.

A credit freeze is a powerful tool for consumers. It cuts off access to your credit history deterring potential thieves. Since most banks and merchants insist on seeing a credit report before issuing credit, identity thieves can't open bogus accounts using stolen data.

Financial institutions tend to dislike credit freezes because it delays the consumers' access to loans, and impulse purchases.

Another section of this bill would change disclosure laws. A business wouldn't have to tell you your information was lost or stolen unless the company decides your info is at risk. Under rules today, any breach of personal information must be reported to the consumer. Financial institutions say this bill sets a national standard for data security.

2: Theft Hot-spots

You're most your most vulnerable when you're at the doctors office, securing a loan or doing your taxes, because you're giving out your Social Security number.

Anytime you offer up your Social Security or your birthdate, you are putting yourself at risk, according to Jay Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center. Your Social Security number can be used to literally hijack your identity, while debit and ATM cards have more protections, like a pin code. You should make it a habit to ask if any other piece of identification can be substituted.

3: Don't lose vigilance on vacation

Of course you want to relax a bit on vacation, but you shouldn't let your guard down when it comes to ID theft. Make sure you leave your checkbooks and your checks at home.

Checking account takeover is one of the most difficult kinds of financial fraud to clean up, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center. If you're using an ATM machine, make sure it's within a bank. Fake ATM machines have been placed in high tourist areas. And they can contain a camera that records you typing in your PIN number.

If you've brought along any valuables, use the hotel's safe. Leaving your stuff in a suitcase is not smart - don't forget that other people have access to your room. And of course, keep your wallet as thin as possible. Take only what is necessary.

4: Forget ID theft insurance

Identity theft coverage is sold by most insurance companies. But it's expensive and coverage is limited. Insurance typically costs $25 to $130 a year. The deductibles usually range from $100 to $250. But some deductibles can be as high as $1,000.

Policies generally do not cover the out-of-pocket loss to the victim. Instead, it may cover the attorney's fees, lost wages and the costs of mailing correspondence.

Considering the average victim spends about $422 in out-of-pocket costs, according to a recent study by Javelin Strategy & Research - you're better off skipping the insurance. Ultimately, you're the best protector of your info, says Susanna Montezemolo of Consumers Union. Plus, you have some protections with your credit card under federal law, says Beth Givens of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

5: Don't panic... yet

If this bill does pass the House, it could still take weeks to get to the Senate. So we're not looking at anything imminent.

And here's some good news...there are actually fewer identity fraud victims in the United States today. A recent study by Javelin Strategy & Research says the number of ID fraud victims in the United States has gone down during the past 3 years, from 4.7 percent of the adult population to 4 percent.


Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. Send your questions, your comments and your own ideas to us at 5tips@cnn.comTop of page

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