Jewish World Review

Act can help you fight identity theft, protect your privacy | (KRT) Imagine that some unscrupulous bank employee took your credit report, complete with your Social Security number, and started applying for credit cards in your name.

So you put a fraud alert on your credit file, warning companies not to issue credit. But one ignored it and issued another card to the identity thief.

Then imagine that when you got the bills from the thief's latest shopping spree, you contacted the bank that issued the card, but the bank wouldn't give you any information.

All those scenarios would have played out differently under the new Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act, which provides more tools to fight identity theft and protect consumers' privacy.

Under the law, you can request that not all of your Social Security number appear on your credit file. Also, it will be illegal for companies to ignore a fraud alert.

And every identity theft victim who files a police report can get transaction records from businesses where a thief opened accounts or bought things in his or her name.

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"Before this law passed, a consumer did not have the right to obtain records where the thief used their name," said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, a consumer organization in Washington, D.C. "Before the business would say: 'How do we know you're not a fraudster? We can't give you records you say aren't yours.' Now they have to."

The FACT Act makes sweeping changes and additions to the Fair Credit Reporting Act, which governs the accuracy and privacy of the information used in credit reports. The new act adds several provisions to combat identity theft and to enhance accuracy and consumer access to credit information. The changes affect insurers, lenders, collection agencies, employers, rental agencies and all companies that use, compile and furnish information for consumer reports.

But consumer advocates have greeted the law with a lukewarm response.

"There are some parts of it that are good," said Jay Foley, co-executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, which monitors identity theft crimes. "There are other parts of that that are not anywhere near as adequate as we want them to be."

Requiring businesses to provide transaction records to identity theft victims is a good thing, but "there's not one provision if they fail to provide the information," he said. "They could refuse any and all of it."

Businesses must have grounds to refuse you the information - for example, if they're not sure of your identity, said Oscar Marquis, a partner at Oldaker, Biden & Belair LLP in Chicago and former general counsel of credit bureau TransUnion.

"The idea is not to let the fraudster actually get the information," Marquis said.

Most parts of the FACT Act go into effect Dec. 1, but that requirement takes effect June 4.

The FACT Act also makes it easier to get a copy of your credit report. The act gives you the right to one free credit report each year, regardless of your circumstances, effective Dec. 1.

Currently, several states already have laws requiring that for their residents.

"It will encourage consumers to check their credit reports much more carefully now, and by checking their credit report, they'll be able to check errors that are the result of identity theft or the result of sloppy financial practices of banks," said Luke Metzger of Texas Public Interest Research Group in Austin, the Texas arm of Mierzwinski's organization. "It definitely empowers consumers to some small degree."

Indications are that consumers will take advantage of that feature of the FACT Act.

Seventy percent of consumers who have obtained their credit report have done so even though they weren't denied credit and weren't a victim of identity theft, according to a survey sponsored by Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the three major credit bureaus.

"The survey also found that 67 percent of the American public - representing 141 million adults - say they would be likely to get a free credit report if Congress adopted a free-credit-report provision," said Alan Westin, president and publisher of Privacy & American Business, which covers issues of consumer and employee privacy.

For consumers who have a dispute about information on their credit report, the FACT Act empowers them to approach the financial institution that furnished the incorrect information.

Under current law, you have to dispute the information through the credit bureau.

That may not always work to the benefit of the consumer, said Georg Finder, a credit reports analyst in Fullerton, Calif.

"By taking the bureaus out of the loop, they have reduced the ability of the consumer to get a response from creditors," he said. "For a lot of creditors, they're notorious for believing that whatever information is in their file is perfect. Even when they're shown that the information is not perfect, they're reluctant to change it."

A banking representative disagreed with that.

"Bankers rely heavily on credit reports," said John Heasley, general counsel of the Texas Bankers Association. "Credit reports are vital to any banking operation. The bankers have a built-in incentive to use the credit system extensively and therefore to fix any areas."

The FACT Act also requires creditors to honor fraud alert statements put by consumers on their credit files. The fraud alert tells lenders to contact a person before granting credit in his or her name because there's a risk that fraud is being perpetrated.

Many creditors haven't been vigilant about respecting fraud alerts because it hasn't been law, consumer advocates said. The fraud alert also must be included with a credit report and when consumers receive their credit scores.

"Before, credit bureaus would put an asterisk on credit reports, but it would be buried and have small type," Mierzwinski said. "Merchants didn't see them because they were buried in the credit report, and often bureaus sold them a score that didn't even include the alerts.

"Now, the alert will be sold with any product, and it will be illegal to issue credit when there is a fraud alert."

The FACT Act also requires a credit bureau to inform other bureaus that a fraud alert has been placed in the file.

The act aims to cut down on identity theft by limiting the circulation of credit-card and Social Security numbers. Also under the FACT Act, businesses must leave all but the last five digits of a credit-card number off receipts.

Consumers may also request that their credit report not contain their entire Social Security number.

The act also requires that preapproved credit offers contain a phone number to opt out of such offers in a simple and easy-to-understand format.

Consumer advocates say that while the FACT Act is a step forward in some ways, it also trips up some stronger state laws.

"Virtually every single positive reform in this law is based on recent state laws," Mierzwinski said. "The states have been the leaders, and Congress is taking the state cops off the beat."

For example, the act pre-empts a California law that requires companies to get consumers' permission before they can share their personal information with affiliates, said Foley of the Identity Theft Resource Center. Under federal law, consumers have to ask that their information not be shared.

In 1996, the last time Congress amended the 1970 Fair Credit Reporting Act, it placed a temporary eight-year limit on state authority to enact some, but not all, stronger consumer protections, Mierzwinski said.

The enactment of the FACT Act "will both make the temporary limits permanent and expand them to include the bill's new identity theft protections and its credit report and credit score disclosure provisions," he said. "Consumers nationwide have gained important new rights to fight identity theft and clean up credit bureau mistakes, but at the unacceptably high price of unfair, permanent limits on state rights."

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© 2004, The Dallas Morning News Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services