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Ten tips

Identity crisis: How to thwart identity thieves

By Times staff writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published November 24, 2002


Identity thieves are on the prowl. Their goal is to gain access to personal information about other people, such as bank and credit card account numbers, Social Security numbers, addresses, phone numbers and dates of birth. Here's how to reduce your risk:

* * *

1. KNOW YOUR ENEMY. Identity thieves can wreck your credit record by establishing credit card accounts, bank accounts and phone service in your name without your knowledge. They may even try to buy a house or a car under your name. It may take weeks or months for you to figure out what's going on because your mail will likely be diverted to another address.

2. HOW IT HAPPENS. Identity thieves can gain access to other people's personal information by stealing their wallets, purses or mail. They may go through your trash looking for data about you, or they may pose as a landlord or employer in order to obtain a copy of your credit report.

3. PROTECT YOUR MAIL. Whenever possible, drop your outgoing mail off inside a post office rather than leave it in an unsecured mailbox. Don't let your mail sit in your mailbox for long stretches of time. If you're going to be away from home, call the U.S. Postal Service toll-free at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold.

4. TRASH YOUR TRASH. Before you throw them away, tear up or shred your credit card receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired credit cards and pre-approved credit offers.

5. CONTACT CREDIT REPORTING AGENCIES. Request copies of your credit record from each of them once a year and check for problems. The three major agencies are Equifax (www.equifax.com, 1-800-685-1111), Experian (www.experian.com, 1-888-397-3742), and TransUnion (www.transunion.com, 1-800-916-8800).

6. BE DISCREET. Identity thieves may contact you pretending to be representatives of banks, Internet service providers or government agencies. Don't share personal information over the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you initiated the contact or you're certain about who you're communicating with.

7. GUARD YOUR SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBER. Don't carry your Social Security card on you. Give out your Social Security number only when absolutely necessary and when you're dealing with a business or agency you know and trust.

8. CHOOSE CHALLENGING PASSWORDS. When selecting passwords for your credit card, bank and phone accounts, avoid obvious ones like your mother's maiden name, your date of birth, the last four digits of your Social Security number or a series of consecutive numbers.

9. BE CYBERSAVVY. Update your virus protection software regularly, don't download files or click on hyperlinks sent to you by people you don't know, use a firewall program and use a secure browser for online transactions. Also, avoid storing financial information on your laptop.

10. IF YOU'RE A VICTIM, fill out an ID Theft Affidavit, a form that makes it easier for you to dispute charges with multiple companies. To receive a copy, call the Federal Trade Commission's Identity Theft Hotline toll-free at 1-877-438-4338, or visit www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

-- Compiled by Laura T. Coffey. Sources: Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov); Consumer.gov (www.consumer.gov)

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