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Where can I find out how to prevent identity theft?

Using these simple tips and rules, you can prevent identity theft.

Identity theft can ruin a person's credit and cause long-term financial chaos. [©Jupiter Images, 2008]
©Jupiter Images, 2008
Identity theft can ruin a person's credit and cause long-term financial chaos.

According to the U.S. Postal Service, nearly 10 million identity theft incidents were reported in 2004. With the rise in online banking and shopping in the last decade, identity theft has become a national threat. To prevent your identity from being stolen and abused, follow these precautionary rules.

How to Prevent Identity Theft

On Your Computer

Problem: Your home computer is a veritable gold mine of information for would-be identity thieves. Your computer could contain social security numbers, bank and utility statements along with your name, address and phone number.

• Do not respond to any e-mails or pop-up messages that ask you to give out personal information. Report any suspicious e-mails to the Federal Trade Commission.
• Don't use obvious passwords. For instance, don't use the last four digits of your Social Security number, your phone number, your mother's maiden name, your immediate family's names, or a series of consecutive numbers. Instead, create a sentence that is easy to remember and then use the first letter of every word in the sentence, substituting some numbers for letters. For example, "Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?" becomes RRWA7R.
• When discarding an old computer, be sure to wipe the hard drive in addition to deleting all files. Just erasing them and clearing them from memory may leave a lot of files accessible to someone who knows how to extract data from the deleted files.
• Make sure your Internet connection is firewall-protected so that hackers aren't able to access your computer through your Internet connection.
• Be sure that you are protected when you practice file sharing. The FTC's "File Sharing: Evaluate the Risks," can help you learn how to share files safely.
• Check out the Federal Trade Commission's OnGuardOnline.gov Web site for more tips and guidelines on protecting yourself online.

In Your Home

Problem: Your home is your refuge. But if you have roommates, or if anyone else (household help or contractors) has access to your home, you may have a false sense of security. Don't think that just because you throw a document away it's gone forever. "Dumpster diving," or looking through trash and recycling for discarded bills and other papers is a popular form of identity theft.

• Store your sensitive papers in a safe or locked box.
• If you are throwing away papers with any sensitive information, shred them first.
• Don't give out personal information over the phone.
• Don't have checks mailed to your home. Instead, arrange to pick them up at your bank.
• Stop receiving credit card offers based on your credit score by calling 800-5-OPTOUT (800-567-8868).

At Work

Problem: Although you may trust your colleagues, you never know who else may have the opportunity to spend a moment looking through your desk.

• Keep your purse or wallet in a secure place.
• If you have hiring documents or insurance papers at work, keep them in a safe place, too.

Out and About

Problem: Some identity thieves use a method called "skimming." A storage device attached to an automated teller machine (ATM) or credit card machine captures all the relevant information from the card. For the less sophisticated criminal, there's always old-fashioned pickpocketing and purse-snatching.

• Be on the lookout for any odd-looking devices attached to credit card machines and ATMs.
• Don't carry your Social Security card with you. Only bring along the credit or debit cards that you really need for the occasion.

In general, it is a good idea to take a look at your credit report once a year to look for possible fraud. To order a free copy of your credit report, make your request at AnnualCreditReport.com, the only Web site authorized to provide your allotted annual free credit report.

Alternatively, call 877-322-8228 or send the FTC form to:

Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281

Reports ordered by phone or mail will be processed and mailed within 15 days. Reports requested online are available immediately.

For more information about identity theft, visit the Federal Trade Commission's informative site, "Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft."

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