Thursday, February 16, 2006 | Married and Mortgaged

What’s your IQ?

I just took an IQ test and scored a two.

That means I’m a genius at protecting my identity

With zero-to-nine points scored on the test, I fell in the category of people who ought to be congratulated for safeguarding their identities extremely well.

At 10-20 points, you know you’re at risk but are too lazy to do something about it. If you get more than 20 points, you’re so cozy with identity thieves that you ought to use condoms when you go online.

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OK, the test doesn’t say that. I do. The test just says you need to get yourself a paper shredder and some awareness, which are the identity-theft equivalents of safe sex.

I can’t take all the credit for my score though. I am lucky enough to live in a state that insists on a few safeguards like banning businesses and the Department of Motor Vehicles from using Social Security numbers in identity cards and drivers’ licenses. You’d be surprised how many states still allow this. All my Virginia driver’s license did sprinkled a few zeros into my Social Security number to thwart thieves.

So just by living here, I lowered my score by three points without having to do anything. If you live in California, you’re already ahead too – unless you’ve been printing your Social Security or driver’s license numbers on your personal checks. If you have, add two points.

If you actually keep your Social Security card in your wallet, add three points. The test adds one, two or three points for all sorts of infractions like not crosscut shredding credit offers and banking information (two points) and providing your Social Security number to everyone who asks for it (two points).

Testers get to subtract points for positive behavior like opting out of marketing lists through 888-5OPTOUT (I did this this week) and hanging up on telephone solicitors.

California has another safeguard that not many people seem to know about if a random survey of my friends is any indication. In California, as in 11 other states, you can put a freeze on your credit reports so no one can obtain credit in your name. It’s not the same thing as a fraud alert, which can be attached to reports for five years or permanently to warn creditors to double check applications for credit in your name. The freeze blocks access to your report completely to all but your existing creditors. I’ve been meaning to do this since I first heard of it at least a year ago and finally sealed the envelopes this week. Here’s how it works:

Most businesses will not open credit accounts without first checking a consumer’s credit report. They can’t do that if the credit report is frozen. If you live in California, all you have to do is address three letters to each of the major credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – including your name, current and former addresses, Social Security number, date of birth and a check for $10. That’s just $30 for a lifetime of protecting your identity from theft. If you think that’s too much money or hassle, talk to someone who’s had their identity stolen. In a survey of 2004 victims of identity theft that was released last fall, the Identity Theft Resource Center reported that victims spent between three and 5,840 hours removing fraudulent credit information from their reports. The mean average is 330 hours.

Compare that to the hour or less it will take you to type up three letters and mail them.

Each of the bureaus has an address for the security freeze, which you can find on California’s Office of Privacy Protection Web site. They also request different particulars so you do need to look them up. For example, Equifax just asks for a name, while TransUnion wants first, last and middle names plus any suffixes like junior.

The bureaus must freeze your credit report within five days of receiving your letter. When credit bureaus freeze your report they provide a pin number, which can be used anytime you want to apply for credit. You can lift the freeze by phone and the bureau must do so within three days. You can lift the freeze for a specific creditor for $12 or for a given date-range for just $10.

Certain entities will still have access to your credit report when it is frozen. The list includes: you and your existing creditors or collection agencies acting on their behalf as well as government agencies trying to collect taxes, child support or investigate Medi-Cal fraud.

I’m putting my credit freeze applications in the mail now. What are you doing?

Catherine MacRae Hockmuth is a freelance writer in Chula Vista. “Married and Mortgaged” will run every other Thursday. E-mail her at

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