By DARRELL McGRAW
CHARLESTON -- Your wallet or purse is stolen along with its belongings, including your credit cards. What now?
In today's world, you have to worry about more than just the cash in your wallet, and you must do more than simply cancel your credit cards. Today's thieves are much more sophisticated. Those lost credit card numbers can lead to a much more devastating conclusion than just the hassle of obtaining new cards.
Identity theft can come in many forms -– stolen physical items are only one of the problems. Once an identity thief has access to your credit card number, he or she can obtain an array of personal information, such as your social security number and home address.
This information then gives the criminal availability to more than just the accounts for which he or she has the numbers. The thief, or someone to whom he or she sold the information, may also be able to access current bank accounts or actually issue new credit in your name.
The key to this type of scam is timing. It is often difficult to determine if it is occurring and the extent to which it is occurring. Many times an identity thief may not use the stolen information for some time after the initial crime. Therefore, checking with the credit agencies and placing an alert with them may not be sufficient.
However, newly passed legislation gives West Virginia consumers a new shield of protection.
On March 10, the West Virginia Legislature passed the enrolled committee substitute for Senate Bill No. 428, which gives West Virginia consumers the right to a "security freeze."
So, what is a security freeze?
In essence, it is a more comprehensive protection than a fraud alert, which simply alerts the credit bureaus to possible fraud. The new security freeze allows a consumer to prohibit any unauthorized third party from access to his or her credit information, and, in turn, prevents any unauthorized issuing of credit in the consumer's name.
To initiate a security freeze, a consumer must contact in writing the consumer-reporting agency. Within five days, the agency must place the freeze on the consumer's account, giving the consumer an identification number or password. Although there are exceptions to the security freeze's protection, the freeze will prohibit access to credit or credit information to any third party without the expressed authorization of the consumer. It is important to note that the agency may notify the third party that the security freeze is in effect.
What if you wish to access your information or take out new credit? If a consumer needs to access to his or her credit, the consumer may temporarily or permanently lift the freeze. To temporarily lift the freeze, the consumer must contact the consumer-reporting agency and provide all of the following: proper identification, the unique identification number or password given by the agency, and the time period for which the lift is to be enacted. Once the agency receives the request, the temporary lift will be in effect within three business days.
Therefore, if you know that you will need to allow access to your credit report, it is wise to contact the agency with your request a few days before the access will be needed.
A permanent lift operates in a similar manner to the temporary lift. However, instead of requesting a specific time period for the lift, a consumer would request that the security freeze be lifted permanently. But consumers should note once again that once a thief has obtained personal and credit information, the actual use of this information may not happen for days, weeks, or even months.
In any situation where you feel that your personal information has been compromised, it is important to still take some other actions in addition to setting the security freeze. Immediately, you need to contact the three major credit bureaus to alert them and obtain your credit report. You should then file a police report as well as file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission. Additionally, you should continually monitor credit reports to ensure your protection.
If you have any questions about the new security freeze, contact Attorney General Darrell McGraw's Consumer Protection Division by calling 1-800-368-8808 or log onto www.wvago.gov for more information.
McGraw is West Virginia's Attorney General.