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The growing problem of merchant database theft

Conspiracy theorists who strive to keep all financial transactions off the grid aren't looking so eccentric these days. Seemingly every month, thieves, hackers and scammers find new ways to steal personal information from retailers and businesses.

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In mid-January consumers found out about yet another personal information database breach, this time affecting millions of shoppers. The theft of credit and debit card numbers, as well as names and addresses of some customers, occurred in the database of TJX, parent company to TJ Maxx, HomeGoods, Marshalls and A.J. Wright. Also affected were their Canadian stores, Winners and HomeSense. Unlike previous high-profile consumer information thefts such as AT&T and ChoicePoint, TJX will not be offering credit monitoring for affected customers. According to their Web site, "your best defense is careful review of your own statements."    

Even more recently, just this week, patrons of Stop & Shop grocery stores in the Northeast got a scare after the company announced that identity thieves had tampered with the card readers in some of their stores, giving the hijackers access to the swiped credit and debit card account numbers as well as PINs. The company has taken steps to avoid the problem in the future, but the affected customers need to be proactive in preventing identity theft.

Instead of waiting for evidence of identity theft, there are some immediate steps to take.

9 steps to take if your ID is exposed:
Check with local authorities to see if you qualify for an "Identity Theft Passport." Several states currently offer them.
Place a fraud alert or credit freeze on your credit report immediately. This will help prevent any new credit accounts from being issued in your name without your permission.
Contact your creditors and banks and ask them to flag accounts, so that any activity such as an address change request is cleared with you ahead of time.
The fastest way to know if any fraudulent accounts have been opened is to review your credit report where most accounts with your name and Social Security number will be recorded. Make sure that all accounts listed are yours. In particular, review any newly opened accounts carefully. With access to your name and your Social Security number, thieves have the ability to open new accounts in your name and provide a new address for billing.
Watch your mail. Look for change-of-address notices, and be aware if some items fail to show up when they usually do. Thieves might have used your information to put in a change of address and have your billing statements and other mail forwarded elsewhere.
Answer the phone. Creditors might be checking on suspicious charges or inquiring about new accounts.
Review all creditor and bank statements for accuracy.
Change passwords on existing brokerage accounts or other investment accounts.
Review your Social Security Administration statements for unusual or unfamiliar activity.
Bankrate.com's corrections policy
-- Posted: Feb. 21, 2007
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