New Md. laws fight ID theft and extend health benefit

PERSONAL FINANCE

December 09, 2007|By EILEEN AMBROSE

Two new state laws kick in soon, and Maryland consumers are the winners.

One gives you a powerful tool - at very little cost - to fight identity theft.

The other will prevent potentially thousands of young adults from suddenly being dropped from their parents' health insurance once they graduate from college.

These are two big but very different consumer issues. Let's take them one at a time.

First, the identity-theft weapon: the ability to put a "security freeze" on your credit report.

Freezing your credit report prevents new creditors from looking at it. If a creditor can't see a report, it is not about to extend credit to you or anyone else trying to open accounts under your name. You can lift the freeze before applying for new credit.

Maryland law requires credit bureaus to allow residents to freeze their reports, starting next month. But just weeks ago, the three major credit bureaus, which long resisted freezes, started allowing everyone to put his reports on ice.

The new law will still help you, though. It says Marylanders can't be charged more than $5 to freeze a report or to have a freeze lifted. That is half the amount that credit bureaus are charging residents in most other states.

Victims of identity theft don't have to pay any fee, no matter where they live.

Just because you can freeze your report, should you?

Not if you will be shopping for a car, house or new credit cards in the near future. A freeze will stop creditors from reviewing your report, and that can lead to delays.

You can lift the freeze, of course, but each time you will pay a credit bureau another fee. Even at $5, fees will quickly mount if you're constantly freezing and thawing reports.

Freeze your report if you have been a victim of identity theft and the impostor continually tries to open accounts under your name, advises Jay Foley, executive director of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

People who suffer from dementia that could cause them to be vulnerable to ID theft should have reports frozen, Foley says.

And freeze a report if you're worried about identity theft and know you won't be needing new credit anytime soon.

That's the case with Stu Shinnick, a Bethlehem Steel retiree in Ocean City.

The Navy veteran placed a short-term fraud alert on his reports after a security breach at the Department of Veterans Affairs last year put the personal information of millions of veterans at risk. A fraud alert asks creditors to call you before extending credit under your name, but there is no guarantee that they will. Freezes go further.

The 69-year-old Shinnick has never had his identity stolen, but he is not taking any chances. He plans to freeze his reports.

"There's just so much going on with identity theft. I'd just rather not have to face it," he says.

A freeze doesn't leave everyone out in the cold. Existing creditors and government agencies collecting back taxes and child support, for instance, can still look at frozen reports.

Request a freeze by sending a letter via certified mail to each of the major credit bureaus: TransUnion, Equifax and Experian. Letters generally should include your full name, address, date of birth, Social Security number and proof of current address, such as a copy of a recent utility bill.

Each credit bureau has slightly different rules, so check their Web sites for further instructions at www.experian.com, www.transunion.com and www.equifax.com.

Victims of identity theft will need to include a copy of the police report to get a free freeze.

Otherwise, Equifax charges Marylanders $5. TransUnion charges $10 if you freeze your report this year, but will drop it to $5 next month as required by law.

Experian charges Marylanders $5.25 because it collects sales tax, says Maxine Sweet, Experian's vice president of consumer education. Given that the sales tax is going up to 6 percent in January, you'll need to send $5.30 next year.

Mail your letters to:

Equifax Security Freeze, P.O. Box 105788, Atlanta, Ga. 30348.

Experian Security Freeze, P.O. Box 9554, Allen, Texas, 75013.

TransUnion, Fraud Victim Assistance Department, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, Calif., 92834.

Once freezes are in place, you will receive an identification number to use when removing a freeze.

Health coverage extended. Graduating from college usually means getting kicked off your parents' health insurance. That will no longer be the case for some young adults in Maryland, beginning next year.

Insurance contracts issued or renewed, starting next year, must allow dependent, unmarried children to remain on a parent's policy until age 25. Children don't have to be full-time students, although more than half of their financial support must come from the parent.

There are exceptions. The law won't apply to federal health plans or to employers that self-insure, meaning they pay claims themselves. It won't cover insurance contracts written out-of-state that Maryland doesn't regulate. And the law does not apply to small employers with 50 or fewer employees.

If you're unsure whether you fall under these exceptions, contact your human resources department.

Questions? Comments? Want to share your own financial tips with readers? Contact Eileen Ambrose at 410-332-6984 or by e-mail at eileen.ambrose@baltsun.com.

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