South Carolina taxpayers whose confidential personal information has been breached have a few options for self-protection – but the most effective one carries a large dose of inconvenience.

Placing a freeze on credit reports is the most thorough way to block someone from illicitly using your Social Security and credit card data to get credit under their name, according to consumer and financial privacy advocates interviewed Friday.

Though credit card numbers can be changed, Social Security numbers last a lifetime and can make consumers more vulnerable.

South Carolina is among a handful of states where freezing credit reports can be done upon request and for free, said Carri Grube-Lybarker, the state’s consumer advocate, and Beth Givens, director of a national consumer and privacy organization. No one can borrow money unless they undergo a credit check. A freeze would stop that.

“We were one of the first states to allow any consumer to put a freeze on their reports free of charge,” Grube-Lybarker said, referring to the Financial and Fraudulent Identity Theft Protection Act that took effect in July 2009.

Consumers do not have to show they’ve been harmed by such thefts before seeking freezes on credit reports from the three largest national credit rating agencies, she said.

Allowing freezes at no charge and without having to show that breached information has been used against a consumer is rare, said Givens, director of the San Diego-based Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

“It’s better than credit monitoring and it’s certainly better than a (90-day) fraud alert,” Givens said.

But freezes carry a down side, she and Mark Ichorn, an assistant director in the Federal Trade Commission’s division of privacy and identityprotection, said.

Freezes also block the consumer from getting the credit he or she wants, including home loans, car loans and other forms of borrowing.

“For some people it’s not convenient because they’re going to have to unfreeze their credit reports,” Givens said. “Individuals who go that route need to determine if it’s going to be a hassle for them.”

Credit monitoring involves consumers periodically checking their credit reports and monthly credit cards to look for activity that is not theirs. Fraud alerts involve getting credit card companies or credit agencies to look with greater scrutiny at new card charges or any new requests for credit.

The FTC has a free online credit report service, Ichorn said.

Givens advised South Carolinians not to overreact to the tax records breach.

“If you’re a victim of a breach, it does not necessarily mean you’re a victim of identity theft,” she said.