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Protect yourself from identity theft

Identity theft claims 10 million victims a year and costs consumers and businesses approximately $52 billion annually, according to the Federal Trade Commission. You can reduce your chances of becoming a victim by educating yourself. If you should be victimized, you'll want to discover the fraud as quickly as possible and take immediate steps to stop the perpetrator. The King County prosecutor's office in Seattle, Wash., has assembled this guide that can help you protect yourself against identity theft.

Identity thieves assume your name, date of birth, Social Security number and credit rating -- which they ruin by posing as you to buy or rent things. They may also get a driver's license and citations in your name, then fail to appear, resulting in a warrant for your arrest.

The problem is growing, due in part to widespread publication of your personal and financial information on the Internet. Sources of this information include merchants, creditors, court files and theft. Your information can be stolen from your home, car, mail or business.

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If your identity is stolen, it can take more than a year of concerted effort to clear up your credit record. You will likely be refused credit, including mortgages; collection agencies will call you at home and work; merchants will likely refuse to accept your checks. You could be arrested and even held in jail.

Prevention tips -- Steps you can take now to minimize the risk of your identity being stolen.

  • Never leave your wallet, purse, checkbook or credit receipts in your car. Car prowling is a prime source for identity theft. Thieves know to look in merchandise bags for credit receipts -- which often print your credit card number.
  • Have your mail delivered to a secure location. Mail box theft is another common source for identity thieves. Your credit card bill has everything a criminal needs to make purchases by telephone or on the Internet.
  • Don't put bill payments in your unlocked mailbox for postal pickup.
  • Carefully review your account statements and credit bills. Contest any unauthorized items or entries.
  • Don't give out personal information over the telephone unless you initiated the call. Identity thieves can pose as representatives of banks, ISPs, collection agencies, government agencies, etc., to get you to reveal your account numbers, passwords, Social Security number or mother's maiden name.
  • Never use a debit card or a check when shopping online. Once stolen from your account, it can be difficult to recover your money. Consider using one credit card only for your online purchases. Use a secure browser when sending credit card numbers over the Internet. Review your bill carefully as soon as you get it. Contest unauthorized charges.
  • Keep a list of all your credit/debit cards, card numbers and issuer phone numbers. This will facilitate your reports to creditors/banks if your purse/wallet is stolen.
  • Memorize your ATM password. Never store the password in your purse or wallet.
  • Shred your financial garbage. That includes credit receipts, pre-approved credit offers, credit checks. Cross-cut shredders are best.
  • Cancel unused credit cards and charge accounts.
  • Be stingy with your Social Security number. Don't give it out to everyone who asks. Make thoughtful decisions regarding whether the requester really needs it. Ask to use other types of personal identifiers.
  • Do not print your Social Security number or driver's license number on your checks. Carry only the number of checks you will need on a given day. Keep pads of blank checks in a safe place.
  • Never carry anything with your Social Security number on it. If your health insurance card shows your Social Security number, ask your insurer for a new card without the Social Security number. Until you get your new insurance card, carry it only when you need to use it.
  • Prevent credit reporting agencies from selling your name, Social Security number, address and credit rating. Merchants who want to offer you credit cards or sell you merchandise buy your financial information. This is a source for personal information that can ultimately be published on the Internet. Contact the "Opt out" option of all credit reporting agencies.
  • Prevent your creditors and identity clearinghouses from selling or "sharing" your personal information. Your creditors generally sell or "share" your name, address, Social Security number, financial information, spending and bill paying habits unless you tell them not to. This information often finds its way to clearinghouses for personal information, and to the Internet. Find sample letters preventing disclosure at Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, www.privacyrights.org and JUNKBUSTERS, www.junkbusters.com. Clearinghouses and other publishers of personal information are listed below.
  • Obtain and review your credit reports regularly. Check all three major credit reporting agencies. Dispute incorrect information. Be sure the agency has a correct address for you, especially if you have moved or suspect your identity has been stolen. Contact information for credit reporting agencies is below.

Illustrations by Brandy Kesl

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-- Posted: Aug. 18, 2004
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