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updated 4/25/2005 6:37:16 PM ET 2005-04-25T22:37:16

What is a security freeze?
A security freeze, also known as a credit freeze, works a bit like a safe-deposit box at a bank.  Your personal data is still held by the credit bureaus, but it's in a virtual box, and only you hold the key.

Freezes put credit files under lockdown. No lender can give credit in a consumer's name unless that consumer expressly gives permission, and "thaws" the frozen file using a secret code, similar to an ATM PIN number.

What are my rights?
California is the only state to let any consumer put a credit freeze on his or her accounts. Texas offers this protection to former victims of identity theft, and is now considering widening that protection to everyone.

Freeze laws that have been signed in Louisiana and Vermont come into effect this July.

Freeze laws have been introduced in 18 other state legislatures.  In four states — Indiana, Kentucky, Maryland, and Utah — the bills have died in committee.  Washington state recently passed its freeze law, and Gov. Christine Gregoire (D) is expected to sign it. Laws in other states are in various stages of consideration.

How are freezes different from fraud alerts?
Fraud alerts are far more common than security freezes, but also far less effective. Any consumer can request a fraud alert if they suspect identity theft.  

When a fraud alert is requested by a consumer, the three credit bureaus add a note to a consumer's credit report. That message warns lenders to take an extra step to identify anyone who may be applying for a credit card or a loan using that person's personal information. The potential lender decides what step is taken.

In the past, credit alerts haven't always been effective, as lenders rushing to disburse credit sometimes ignore them. Alerts generally expire after 90 days, unless consumers ask for longer-term alerts in writing.

And most important, even with an alert in place lenders can still access credit files and give credit to anyone they wish. With a freeze, consumers gain control of who looks at their credit file.

What else do I need to know?
Security freezes are a good tool to fight identity theft, but they're not the only thing you can do. Learn more here:

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