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To reduce the risk of becoming the next victim, you can pay for ID theft protection services or do it yourself.
Protecting your identity

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Do-it-yourself protection
Despite the claims of identity-theft protection services, many consumer advocates and the credit bureau representatives agree that individuals are their own best foot soldiers in the war to protect their identities.

They insist consumers can enact many of the protections on their own for free or at a low cost rather than paying services a fee to do the work.

For example, anybody can write the three credit bureaus to request a free copy of his or her credit report or to activate fraud alerts. Watch related video

"We've tried to give consumers the power to be able to access the tools that they think are most appropriate for their needs," says Steven Katz, director of corporate communications for TransUnion, "whether that's a fraud alert, which you can place by yourself very quickly and efficiently over the phone, or whether that's a security freeze, which now you also have the ability to place either free of charge if you're a victim or (otherwise) for a nominal cost."

A fraud alert is a notation on your credit report that asks the credit issuer to take additional verification steps before granting credit. It generally expires after 90 days. A credit or security freeze blocks new lenders from accessing your credit file without your permission. Watch related video

Consumers can completely freeze their credit at Equifax, Experian or TransUnion. Katz says the TransUnion freeze runs $10, even in states that previously offered freezes for more. If one freezes his credit and then a few weeks later gets the itch to buy something, he can lift the freeze and specify for how long. But Katz says it costs another $10 to lift the freeze.

Sometimes the best solution involves taking simple preventive steps. According to the Federal Trade Commission, consumers should treat any mail carefully, be on guard when using the Internet, select intricate passwords and verify a source before sharing information.

The FTC says financial institutions and employers require Social Security numbers, or SSNs. If other companies -- such as insurance agencies or legal firms -- request it, the FTC recommends asking:

Ask these questions before giving out your digits
Why do you need my SSN?
How will it be used?
How do you protect it from being stolen?
What will happen if I don't give you my SSN?

If you don't provide your SSN, some businesses may not provide the services or benefits. But getting answers may help you decide whether you want to do business with them anyway.

Kenney says the Consumers Union is lobbying companies to discontinue the use of Social Security numbers.

"That is the biggest problem. Companies that have no need for your SSN get compromised and your identity is stolen," she says.

Although Kenney and other advocates insist that consumers can protect their own identities at minimal cost, Davis believes identity-theft protection services offer a valuable service to millions of people.

"You can do your own taxes and change your own oil," he says. "Some people do. That's great. You can set your own fraud alert. Or we're there for $10 a month to do it for you and we're going to be there in case anything happens."

-- Updated: May 23, 2008
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