ATLANTA - Christi Sizemore Behrend never realized what a nightmare having her financial information stolen could be until it happened to her - twice.
The first time, the Atlanta resident went to her bank's teller machine and saw her checking account cleared out.
Someone had gotten her account number, and now, a couple of years later, she still is not certain who did it or how.
"Someone had done a little shopping spree and gone to all these clothing stores and retail stores," she said. "It was pretty terrifying."
After spending time to clear it up with her bank, Ms. Sizemore Behrend found several unauthorized charges on her credit card, bringing on a whole new set of hassles.
"That was really a pain in the neck," she said.
"I had to find a way to prove that it wasn't my charges."
As identity theft becomes an increasing problem for Georgia consumers, state lawmakers are considering a way to cut thieves' access.
Rep. Rob Teilhet, D-Smyrna, has sponsored House Bill 966 to allow people to put a security freeze on their credit report, prohibiting credit reporting agencies from releasing that information to anyone.
That means no one, including the account holder, could access the report to apply for a new credit card or loan unless the consumer provides proper identification and a password to temporarily lift the block.
The proposal has been the subject of several committee hearings and is expected to be discussed again this week.
Though consumer groups are backing the idea as an effective way to thwart criminal activity, retailers and representatives from three major credit bureaus are arguing that it would be a hindrance for people operating an increasingly cashless economy and would make impulse credit purchases nearly impossible for large items such as cars, expensive jewelry and furniture.
"Identity theft is the fastest-growing financial crime in the country," Mr. Teilhet said. "Everybody knows several people that it's happened to."
He said at least 10 states have enacted similar credit-freezing tools.
"It's the only thing that allows you to prevent the crime from happening in the first place," he said.
Under HB 966, a consumer would have to pay up to $10 to each of the three credit reporting agencies for the lockdown.
Another bill pending in the House, sponsored by Rep. Tommy Benton, R-Jefferson, would not require fees, but the freeze would be available only for identity-theft victims.
Georgia ranked ninth last year for the number of consumer complaints of identity theft lodged with the Federal Trade Commission, which has seen the crime top its list of most-reported fraud for the past five years.
The federal agency handled nearly 8,000 complaints from Georgia, and experts say there are likely a large number of cases that go unreported.
Legislating voluntary credit freezes started in 2003, when California became the first state to do so.
Supporters say that while there are several state and federal laws to help victims recover from identity theft, the freeze is the most comprehensive idea so far to prevent it.
But business groups have come out against the measure, saying delays in freezing and unfreezing access to credit accounts would cause consumers more hassle than help.
Reach Vicky Eckenrode at (404) 681-1701 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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