Every time you write a check, use your credit card or pay bills, you're taking a risk -- a risk that could mean the loss of your identity. Identity theft is quickly becoming one of the most prevalent, and disturbing crimes. Fortunately, you can protect your personal information -- and you do have recourse if your identity is stolen.
All the information an identity thief needs is available from everyday financial transactions. A thief may sift through your trash and retrieve your Social Security number or bank and credit card account numbers, which he can use to open a new credit card account in your name.
Identity thieves will steal wallets and purses with your credit cards, mail and pre-approved credit offers, complete a "change of address" form to divert your mail or use personal information you share on the Internet. With just one tiny piece of personal information, they can wreak havoc.
Minimize your risk
Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect yourself:
* Never reveal or verify personal information if you don't know who is asking for it and how it will be used.
* Never share personal information with an unfamiliar company or person over the Internet. Avoid having your checking account debited directly from an Internet vendor; use a credit card instead.
* Watch your billing cycles. Follow up with your bank and creditors if your bills don't arrive on time. A major source of information for ID thieves is stolen mail, and a missing credit card bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed your billing address.
* Shred bank account information, charge card receipts, insurance forms, and other personal documents before you throw them away. Be especially careful of pre-approved credit card applications. If you don't want to receive pre-approved credit cards, call 1-888-5-OPTOUT.
* Know whom you're writing a check out to, and be careful. You're giving them all the information printed on the check, your account number and signature.
* If your bank offers online banking, use it to view activity regularly and pay bills. You'll be able to detect unauthorized activity early and prevent mail theft.
* Keep items with personal information in a safe place. Don't carry all of your personal information in purses, backpacks or other easily stolen items.
* Keep your Social Security card and number somewhere other than your wallet and be cautious when providing the number to others.
* Check your credit rating annually with one of the three major credit bureaus:
-Trans Union 1-800-680-7289
What to do if your identity is stolen
Unfortunately, even if you're very careful with your personal and financial information, your identity can still be stolen. However, there are measures you can take to minimize the damage. For an extensive list of resources, contact the Federal Trade Commission (1-877-IDTHEFT) or www.consumer.gov/idtheft. In the meantime, the FTC recommends you take these three steps first:
* Immediately call the fraud units at each credit bureau. Ask that a fraud alert be placed in your file. You can also file a victim's statement asking creditors to call you before a new account is opened under your name.
* Contact your creditors to ask for any accounts that have been opened fraudulently. Talk to somebody in the fraud or security department. Consumer protection laws also require that you follow up with a letter.
* File a report with your local law enforcement and ask to get a copy of the report.
If you run into problems with credit bureaus or creditors when trying to remove fraudulent transactions from your accounts, you should seek legal assistance.
Remember, being aware of how identity thieves gain access to your information can help you guard against its occurrence. Monitor your everyday activities and if something seems odd, report it immediately. Swift action will help minimize the damage, and get your identity back to its rightful owner -- you.
Vorwerk is senior vice president, operations, with Union Bank of California.