April 28, 2006

Commentary:

Protecting Latino Consumers from Identity Theft

By Congressman Joe Baca

April is Financial Literacy Month, an opportunity for Americans to gain the skills and know-how needed to manage their money, credit and debt. Among the most vital pieces of information that can prepare individuals to make responsible financial decisions is a credit report. Understanding one’s credit report plays a key role in home-ownership readiness, increasing financial literacy and monitoring for identity theft or fraud.

Recognizing the important role a credit report plays in enhancing financial literacy and combating identity theft, Congress passed the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, legislation that requires the credit bureaus to provide consumers a free annual credit report.

However, the system to order free credit reports - including a website and toll-free hotline - is only available in English. Therefore, despite the law’s passage in 2003, many Americans are still unable to get the information and assistance they are entitled to. Of special concern are the nearly 30 million Latino consumers within the United States - including almost 3 million in Puerto Rico - who have limited English language skills. Many lack information essential to making sound financial decisions. These individuals are also highly susceptible to identity theft.

Identity theft is a serious and pervasive crime that affects millions of American families. A recent Justice Department study estimated that 3.6 million U.S. households (about 3 of every 100) were victims of identity theft in 2004. Latinos with common surnames and those lacking English proficiency and financial literacy are especially vulnerable and increasingly targeted.

As a member of the House Financial Services Committee, I have called on America’s leading credit bureaus to implement new procedures and services to help Spanish speakers obtain copies of their credit report, understand the financial information it contains and learn about ways they can guard against identity theft, detect it or take corrective action if they discover they have been victimized.

The right to a free credit report is a right for all consumers. In order for tens of millions of Spanish speakers to gain access, the system for ordering free credit reports must be made available in Spanish.

Recently, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) met with executives from TransUnion, Experian and Equifax to discuss this issue and ask them to take additional steps to protect Latinos who have limited English language skills. The CHC will continue to call on the credit bureaus to act responsibly and will hold them accountable.

Congressman Joe Baca serves as First Vice Chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) and chairs the CHC Corporate America Task Force. He represents the 43rd Congressional District of California. Congressman Baca serves on the House Financial Services Committee. His priorities include fighting for the rights of working families.

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