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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.

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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.

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.


Next: If your identity has been stolen or misused ...
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