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When the news reports say your personal information may be at risk

You've probably seen reports on the news or in the paper about major "security breaches" in which a retailer, credit card processing firm or some other company revealed that confidential account information was "lost" or stolen. Chances are that you worried about your credit card numbers, Social Security number or other personal data being in the possession of identity thieves who might commit fraud in your name. Here's what to know and do:

New rules require a financial institution or its service provider to notify customers of security breaches. Starting April 1, 2005, the FDIC and other federal banking regulators require that banks issue notices in the event of unauthorized access to sensitive data, including Social Security numbers, account numbers, passwords and other information that could result in "substantial harm or inconvenience to any customer."

"If you receive one of these notices, your financial institution will spell out the steps you should take to protect yourself," said Kathryn Weatherby, an FDIC bank technology supervision specialist. "Or, if the situation is serious enough, your bank may replace your credit card with a new one and close your old account."

Keep a close watch on your credit card bills and bank statements. Look at your monthly statements as soon as they arrive and report a discrepancy or anything suspicious, such as a missing payment or an unauthorized withdrawal. While federal and state laws may limit your losses if you're a victim of fraud or theft, your protections may be stronger if you report the problem quickly and in writing.

Also contact your institution if a statement doesn't arrive on time because that could be a sign that an ID thief has stolen your mail and/or account information to commit fraud in your name from another location.

Exercise your new rights to review your credit record and report fraudulent activity. Your credit report, which is prepared by a credit bureau, summarizes your history of paying debts and other bills. Under the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act (FACTA), as of September 1, 2005, residents in all 50 states and U.S. territories, can get one free credit report each year from each of the nation's three major credit bureaus. The new law took effect in western states last December and has been gradually moving east.

Experts suggest spreading out your requests throughout the year—get one free report every four months instead of three at the same time—to maximize your protection.

To get your free report, go to www.AnnualCreditReport.com or call toll-free 877-322-8228. Review your credit report for warning signs of actual or potential ID theft, such as mention of a credit card, loan or lease you never signed up for. If you already are a victim of ID theft or you suspect you are a target, FACTA gives you new rights to place a fraud alert in your credit files at all three major credit bureaus by calling or writing any one of their fraud departments.

"These fraud alerts will help prevent an imposter from obtaining new credit in your name because, at a minimum, the lender will be required to make a reasonable attempt to verify the applicant's identity," explained Weatherby.

For more information about protecting against ID theft, see the Fall 2004 FDIC Consumer News at www.fdic.gov/consumers/consumer/news/cnfall04/index.html.

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