Identity theft became less of a remote possibility over the last couple of months as several date reporting agencies admitted that they were hacked or otherwise compromised. Therefore, it is time to revisit the issue of credit reports and fraud alerts.

In February ChoicePoint, a firm that markets data to a wide range of customers - data apparently based on personal information about you, me, everybody - announced that their security had been breached and that personal information such as Social Security numbers and other credit information on 145,000 people had been stolen.



Shortly thereafter another database firm, LexisNexis, revealed that they had suffered a similar intrusion and that the bad guys might have pirated information on some 32,000 of their customers. This week they restated that figure, admitting that nearly ten times that many people may now have personal financial information residing in the wrong hands.

Both ChoicePoint and LexisNexis have acted quickly to inform persons whose identities may potentially have been compromised. Still, this is pretty scary stuff.

For one thing, it appears that it is up to the victim to prove that his identity has been stolen. Google "identity theft" or even "credit reports" and read some truly horrifying accounts of people (even some infants) who have lost their identities to criminals who go far beyond emptying bank accounts or misusing credit cards. Stories abound about victims who lose jobs, even end up in jail for car theft, DWI, child abuse, and other acts committed in their names. The underlying theme of many of these tales is that there is really nowhere to go to fully clear a name or redeem credit history once they are hijacked.

This may, however, be changing. It has taken half a decade, but the crime has finally registered with Washington, and as this is being written, the Senate is holding hearings on the subject. At this hearing the head of the Federal Trade Commission testified that over ten million people have been victims of identity theft and that cumulative loses exceed $5 billion.

Today's hearings specifically address legislation which would regulate data brokerage firms such as ChoicePoint and LexisNexis. There still, however, appears to be nothing on the horizon that would create a remedy for those who become victims.

Therefore, it is appropriate to once again remind everyone that, under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACT Act) that all Americans have or will soon have the right to a free copy of their credit report every year from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus. Request a report from one of these agencies (Equifax, Experian, TransUnion) every four months and you will be able to pretty closely monitor your credit year round.

The right to access these reports has been rolling out one region at a time since the first of the year. At present (as of March 1) residents in every state west of Kansas and north of Oklahoma are eligible to receive them. As of June 1, the entire south from Oklahoma in a pretty straight line east to the North Carolina/South Carolina line will be entitled to apply; the final region, the Northeast and all U.S. possessions and territories becomes eligible on September 1.

To receive your free credit report(s) when your state comes online, visit www.annualcreditreport.com.

And, if you are already a victim of identity theft, check out www.consumer.gov/idtheft for some helpful tips on how to proceed to put your life back together.