Andrea Esquer figures she was among the first of thousands of Arizonans who logged on to the Federal Trade Commission's new Web site to retrieve her free credit report.
“I was amazed how quickly I got it. It only took about one minute,” said Esquer, press secretary for Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard. “I was also surprised at how far back it went. It showed a loan I made 10 years ago.”
Esquer may have received a surprisingly quick response when the program was introduced in Arizona and 11 other Western states Wednesday, but the service was shut down for at least several hours Thursday.
It also came under fire by police who investigate technological thefts.
“It worries me,” said Lt. Lisa Messina, supervisor of the Technology Investigation Unit of the Phoenix Police Department.
“There may be many techniques to encrypt the information, but there is no way of knowing if the person sitting in front of the computer and asking for the credit report is the real person,” Messina said.
“I'm afraid that when the reports are received, they may contain billing account numbers that could be misused by the thief,” she said. “I guess I'm paranoid about putting my Social Security number on the Internet.”
Nevertheless, the new service is drawing applause from most other Valley quarters.
“The attorney general and his staff thinks the free credit reports are great, but we're joining other local, state and federal agencies to remind consumers to be careful of identity theft when they use it,” Esquer said.
The attorney general's office is one of several agencies that have formed the Arizona Identity Theft Task Force to help consumers protect themselves, especially when using personal information available through the new electronic program.
Others include the U.S. Postal Inspector's Office, U.S. Attorney's Office and the Phoenix Police Department.
Esquer said, however, that available in stages for other states, contains substantial identity protection for visitors.
The program, which will begin March 1 in the Midwest, June 1 in the South and Sept. 1 in the East, was mandated in consumer privacy legislation introduced and signed by President Bush into law last year. Before the law, consumers had access to free credit reports only if they were denied credit, were unemployed, receiving welfare or believed to be victims of identity theft.
Besides the new Web site, which is sponsored by the FTC and served by the three national credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — consumers can get credit reports by calling (877) 322-8228 or via regular mail by requesting a form and sending it to Annual Credit Report Request Service, PO Box 105283, Atlanta, GA 30348-5283.
“We think the free credit report is a great service,” said Felicia Overton, public affairs coordinator for the Better Business Bureau of Central/Northern Arizona.
“We've teamed up with the FTC to encourage consumers to use it, but we also want to remind them to click on to that site only and avoid other Web sites,” Overton said.
Her warning was echoed by Robert Siciliano, a Boston security expert who has appeared on CNN, MSNBC and has written books about protecting identity.
“Having free access to your credit report is wonderful,” said Siciliano, author of “The Safety Minute: How To Take Control of Personal Security and Prevent Fraud.”
“I recommend that consumers use the free service at least three times a year every three or four months,” Siciliano said. “Since each of the three companies offer a free report, it gives broader coverage.”
He said the report will reveal whether someone else using your identity has applied for a credit card, for example, or is using a phony card.
He also suggested that consumers who receive free reports pay the cost of obtaining a credit score, a complex mathematical model that evaluates information on a credit file. A credit score is used by a lender to help determine whether a person qualifies for a particular credit card, loan or service.
Information about buying a credit score is available from any of the three credit reporting companies through the FTC.
Some of the identity safeguards in the program include physical and technological security measures as well as encryption of certain information, according to the FTC.