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Straight Story: For your eyes only?

TEXT OF INTERVIEW:

KAI RYSSDAL: It is time once again for our economics editor Chris Farrell to help you sort out what is smart, what is stupid and what is the straight story. This week, I confess I'm a little afraid, Chris. We're going to get some private thoughts?

CHRIS FARRELL: Oh, yes. Kai, I gotta tell you. Our private, personal and financial a data is being exposed at a scary pace. Let me just give you one number.

RYSSDAL: Alright.

FARRELL: According to The Washington Post, 85 million consumers, that's 85 million consumers, have been told that their data may have been exposed or flat out stolen over the past 15 months. Now I think that's a stunning figure.

RYSSDAL: Absolutely.

FARRELL: Case in point, last month a veteran's administration worker took home some electronic data, including the personal information of 26 million vets and their spouses.

RYSSDAL: Raise your hand if you're one of those vets. That's me, thank you very much.

FARRELL: Well, a burglar stole it and it was the largest social security number breach ever. So, what does Washington want to do? Well, there are a number of competing bills on the Hill, but the front runner, the so-called Financial Data Protection Act, will make it harder for you to freeze your credit report. It will also make it easier for companies to avoid telling you that they've lost control of your data. Let me see now, Financial Data Protection Act. Yes, I think Orwell lives. Here's the straight story: In this era of identity theft, consumers needs better privacy protection. So far, what we're seeing is good for business but bad for consumers.

RYSSDAL: Well, you know, it might be good for business, but I'm a little curious as to why business doesn't want to protect its consumers just a little bit more. I mean, you'd think if businesses take care of customers, they'd be happier you know all that stuff.

FARRELL: You're absolutely right, and there's a good case of the interest of business, consumers and the credit bureaus can be aligned. But business has this wonderful selling technique. Kai Ryssdal goes into big box store, and they'll say, 'Hey, 10 percent off if you take out a credit card.' Now, if you have frozen your credit report, you can't take up that offer. So this is the big argument against it. You're interfering with our ability to do certain kinds of promotions and that sort of spontaneous taking of credit.

RYSSDAL: Right. Now, to freeze your credit report obviously is to put a limit on it so that nobody can get in there and mess around with it and make credit applications that you're not aware of, right?

FARRELL: Right. And let's just make a key distinction.

RYSSDAL: Sure.

FARRELL: The credit freeze that we're talking about is really the voluntary credit freeze. So you contact those three major credit reporting bureaus and you pay them somewhere an average of about $10.00, and you say, 'OK, when the lender contacts you and they want to access my file to see if I'm a real person and have good credit, you have to deny them.' I'm not talking about when you've had your identity stolen and then you put out a fraud alert and your file is frozen.

RYSSDAL: Now, there are states in this country that let you freeze your credit report, already. I think California is one of them. There's maybe a dozen or so others. It sort of seems to make so much sense that we have a national standard.

FARRELL: It makes a lot of sense to have a national standard. Now, a number of states have had some pretty good laws. Do you remember the Choice Point data breech?

RYSSDAL: Yeah, you bet.

FARRELL: Well, the only reason we knew about that was because of California Law, which required notification. So the case for a national standpoint is this: Number of states, some let them freeze your credit report voluntarily. Some only let you freeze your credit report after your ID has been stolen. Some require notifications. Some don't. I mean it's all over the lot. So let's have a national standard, protect consumers, allow them to freeze their credit report if they want and set up some common reporting standards. The problem is, Kai, what we're seeing is not protecting consumers. It's not driven by desire to say let's protect the consumer. It's driven by desire to protect a certain business strategy.

RYSSDAL: Yeah, now. Let's bring you back to reality here. This Financial Data Protection Act thing, it's probably going to pass, isn't it? And the consumer is going to wind up with the short end of the stick again?

FARRELL: Yes. Now there is a lot of talk about a compromise, that as it is written, it's not going to pass, so it's not going to be quite as bad, or at least I have my fingers crossed, it's not quite as bad as it appears right now. But the bottom line for me: Whatever compromises are made, it's a bad step backwards. We should start over again with a national standard, protect the consumer. And the consumer, in this information age and in this era of ID theft, should be able to control their information better than they can right now.

Alright. The Straight Story from our man, Chris Farrell. Thank, you, Chris.

FARRELL: Thanks, Kai.

About the author

Chris Farrell is the economics editor of Marketplace Money.
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