How to leave identity thieves out in the cold By EVE MITCHELL WALNUT CREEK, Calif. — It could happen to you. Somebody swipes your Social Security number, then uses it to open a credit card in your name. Before you know it, you've become a victim of identity theft and have a pile of bills for things you didn't buy. Sylvia Coates has found a way to prevent that unpleasant scenario from happening by freezing her credit reports. ``I can't tell you how wonderful it is. I think it is the only foolproof way,'' she said. Coates, who lives in Orinda, Calif., applied for a credit freeze soon after that option become available in 2003, thanks to passage of a state law there that requires credit reporting bureaus to let consumers initiate a credit freeze. Having a credit freeze means that access to your credit reports and credit scores cannot be shared with potential creditors or lenders unless you give permission. No access means that someone who stole your personal information would not be able to fraudulently open a new account in your name. ``It would prevent the crook from being able to use stolen information about you and use that information to (obtain) a new credit card or new cell phone,'' in your name, said Michael McCauley, spokesman for the San Francisco office of Consumers Union. But while a freeze is an effective tool to fight identity theft and credit card fraud, it's not for everyone. For one, you'll have to pay a one-time fee (which varies by state, usually $5 or $10) to initiate a freeze with each of the nation's three major credit-reporting bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. And if you need to temporarily ``thaw'' a freeze when you want to apply for a new credit card, home or car loan, you may have to pay a fee to each credit bureau to let a potential creditor look at your file. That's why a credit freeze might not be a good choice for a young person with little credit history, while it could be the right move for an older person who has an established credit history. "If you are someone who has a home and have credit and not really looking to use credit, it's a good tool. But for someone who is starting out and needs to have credit, it's not a good tool," said Kam Coveyou, a spokeswoman for California's Office of Privacy Protection. Still, if you are concerned about identity theft, a credit freeze is more effective than other security options, such as filing a no-cost fraud alert or signing up for a fee-based credit-monitoring service, McCauley said. "It's the safest thing you can do," Coveyou said. California was first About one-third of the estimated 10 million cases of identity theft that happen annually in the U.S. involve the theft of stolen Social Security numbers and other personal information to open new accounts in the victim's name. California was the first state to have a credit freeze law on the books. Thirty-eight other states, including Texas, and the District of Columbia have since passed credit freeze laws. The number of people with a credit freeze is just a fraction of the estimated 165 million consumers in the United States with a credit history. From 50,000 to 70,000 consumers nationwide have a credit freeze where there are laws that allow them, said Norm Magnuson, vice president of public affairs for the Consumer Data Industry Association, whose members include the three major credit bureaus. The association would like to see more consistency among the different laws governing credit freezes, "for the convenience of our industry and the convenience of consumers," Magnuson said. Taking out a credit freeze does not lower your credit score. Different protection levels Credit freezes, fraud alerts and credit monitoring services all provide different levels of protection for consumers concerned about the possibility of identity theft. A fraud alert requires credit bureaus to post a special message on your report to prompt a potential provider of credit to take special care to verify that the applicant applying for credit is indeed you. If a fraud alert is made with one credit reporting bureau, that bureau is required to pass on the fraud alert to the other two bureaus. A fraud alert "is supposed to trigger additional scrutiny," McCauley said. "What we're hearing from consumers is that doesn't always happen." Consumers can request a fraud alert that lasts for 90 days if they believe their personal information may have been stolen. The initial fraud alert can be extended past the 90-day period. Victims of identity theft can have a fraud alert for seven years. Monitoring by bureaus For fees ranging from $4.99 to $16.99 a month, the three major credit reporting bureaus provide credit-monitoring services. Among other things, these services send out alerts to consumers when a potential creditor has made inquiries and when new accounts have been opened. Having a fraud alert or credit monitoring does not prevent unauthorized access to your credit report. "That's why the freeze is much more effective," McCauley said. "It actually prevents the application from being processed."