HONOLULU - Are the seniors in your life as protected as they can be from threats of identity theft? Credit experts often recommend a credit freeze, also called a security freeze, as a way to protect personal information from credit fraud and identity theft. 

If someone steals your identity, they could spend money under your name - before you even realize what's been done. Experts say thieves like to target the older population. Stephen Levins, executive director of the The Office of Consumer Protection at the Department of Commerce and Consumer Affairs, says "Seniors are vulnerable because they're good targets; they have money."

That's why consumer protection experts urge everyone, but seniors in particular, to freeze their credit as a preemptive move. Levins explains, "No merchant, credit card company, or retailer will extend credit without doing a credit check. If they are unable to do the credit check because your credit report is frozen, the person who is trying to impersonate you and take out a credit card in your name can't do that."

Doug Shadel, AARP fraud expert, adds, "If people [thieves] have your personal information, they can't open new accounts in your name."

It also means you can't apply for new credit unless you lift the freeze using a special personal identification number. A new state law, effective July 1, lets people do that for free. Levins says, "People are now going to be able to freeze their credit without paying. In the past you had to pay $5 to freeze it, $5 to unfreeze it, then $5 to freeze it again. There are three major credit reporting agencies. If you do that three times, it comes out to $45."

Those three major credit reporting bureaus are Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Levins says it makes a lot of sense for seniors, especially, to freeze their credit. "For people who are done applying for credit - they're not getting another credit card, not applying for a mortgage - there's no reason to keep your credit report open."

It's a message AARP Hawaii is sharing with its members. Valerie Yamada attended a recent presentation, where Island News caught up with her after the seminar to ask if she's going to freeze her credit. "I'm looking into it. I learned today it's safer for your protection," she says.

Consumer advocates agree. Levins sums, "It's an effective way to prevent a bad person from exploiting your good name and taking out more credit cards in your name."

Background on Hawaii's free credit freezes:

A new state law that will allow Hawaii consumers to request free security freezes took effect Sunday, July 1, 2018. Hawaii residents, including children under age 16, are no longer required to pay for security freezes.

The state says Act 22, signed by Governor David Ige on June 6, 2018, will greatly enhance consumer protection in Hawaii by enabling Hawaii residents to request consumer reporting agencies, such as, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, to place, lift, or remove a security freeze on their credit report for free. Under previous Hawaii law, consumer reporting agencies charged consumers a fee of $5.00 each time they froze, lifted, and unfreezed their credit report. 

Additionally, effective in September 2018, a new federal law, The Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief, and Consumer Protection Act will extend the right to obtain a free credit freeze to the rest of the country. 

The Office of Consumer Protection recommends consumers do the following to protect themselves from identity theft:

•    Regularly request their free credit reports, inspect them closely, and promptly dispute any unauthorized accounts;

•    Inspect all financial account statements closely and promptly dispute any unauthorized charges;

•    Consider placing alerts on their financial accounts so their financial institution alerts them when money above a pre-designated amount is withdrawn;

•    Beware of potential phishing emails; don’t open email messages or attachments from unknown senders and do not click on any unknown links. Fraudsters will frequently send coercive and misleading emails threatening account suspension or worse if sensitive information is not provided.  Remember, businesses will never ask customers to verify account information via email.  If in doubt, contact the business in question directly for verification and to report phishing emails; and 

•    Be on the lookout for spoofed email address.  Spoofed email addresses are those that make minor changes in the domain name, frequently the letter O to the number zero, or lowercase letter I to the number one.  Scrutinize all incoming email addresses to ensure that the sender is truly legitimate.