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Identity theft's survival kit

How to protect yourself from the new-age theif

In today's technological age of the seemingly inevitable identity theft, Americans are facing massive attacks on their personal and financial privacy unlike those seen by any previous generation. According to the Identity Theft Resource Center, identity theft remains the number one concern among consumers contacting the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) -- and looking at the statistics, it's easy to see why.

It is estimated that almost 10 million people become victims of identity theft per year, and victims spend approximately 600 hours of their time to recover from identity theft -- a period of time that can easily span over several years. Even after the identity thief stops using the information, victims struggle with the impact that could include increases in insurance or credit card fees, the inability to find a job, higher interest rates and battling collection agencies and issuers who refuse to clear their records despite substantiating evidence of the crime. Not only does identity theft affect the individual, it affects the business community as well -- and their losses can total almost $100,000 per name in fraudulent charges.

It may seem that shielding your private information may be impossible these days, but it's critical to understand how your privacy can be compromised, what you can do to shield your identity and tips on how you can recover if your identity is stolen.

Identity theft booming

Identity theft takes into account a number of privacy crimes, including the theft of a Social Security number, a credit or debit card or even the stealing of phone calling cards. Identity theft crimes are adding up fast, and in fact, since the beginning of the decade, the average amount of time an individual takes to fight and recover from their identity being stolen has increased 2,500 percent. Also, the time involved to clear the consequences of identity theft nearly equals $20,000 in potential or realized income.

According to MSN Money online, 750,000 Americans are victims of identity theft each year and that number may be on the lower end as many people choose not to report the crime, or don't even know they are being victimized. The age of the Internet has also opened up new avenues for theft and the Web allows thieves to send stolen data to most any worldwide location.

How does it happen?

Thieves go to extreme and easy measures to get information -- such as the unpleasant activity called "dumpster diving." With this tactic, criminals will sift through trash to find credit-card statements or solicitation letters that someone didn't tear up. Another tactic used is "shoulder surfing" in which the person will try to spot calling card and personal identification numbers. Also, criminals get a lot of personal information by stealing mail. Because there are so many different ways an identity can be stolen, it is estimated that 80 percent of the victims who call the FTC's Identity Theft Program have no idea how it happened.

The more advanced identity thief uses the Internet and e-mail to their advantage. The most popular term for this is the "phishing" scam. Crooks will use official-looking emails and fake Web sites to get your personal data and then steal it from you. The contacting party claims to be a creditor asking for personal information so that an account, in theory, can be verified or updated. Often, the creditor's request can seem real and the e-mail can contain the creditor's logo. Of course, this is a scam and the contacting party is hoping you will respond with your personal information. You should never supply your personal information to online links or by e-mail, or to questionable creditors over the phone -- only provide personal information if you made the initial contact.

Simple ways to protect yourself

Many people fall victim to some form of identity theft, but with a few simple steps, you can protect yourself just a bit more.

*Destroy private records and statements

Purchase an inexpensive shredder and make sure you shred all credit card statements, solicitations and other documents that contain private financial information.

*Secure your mail

Empty your mailbox quickly, lock it or get a P.O. box so criminals don't have a chance to get your mail before you do. Never mail outgoing bill payments and checks from home. They can be stolen from your mailbox and the payees name erased. Mail them from the post office or another secure location.

*Safeguard your Social Security number

Never carry your card with you, or any other card that may have your number, like a health insurance card. Also, don't put your number on your checks. Be defensive of this personal information -- it is okay to ask salespeople and others whether that information is absolutely mandatory. If it is, ask what their privacy policy is and whether you can arrange for the organization to not share your information with anyone else. If a thief has access to your Social Security number and your bank accounts, they could have access to all of your money.

*Don't leave a paper trail

Never leave ATM, credit card or gas station receipts behind.

*Never let your credit card or PIN out of your sight

Always keep an eye on your card, and make sure you protect PIN numbers associated with your debit cards.

*Know who you're dealing with

This comes into play especially when it comes to the phishing scams. Whenever anyone contacts you asking for private identity or financial information, make no response other than to find out who they are, what company they represent and the reason for the call. If you think the request is legitimate, contact the company yourself and confirm what you were told before revealing any of your personal data.

*Know your credit

Individuals are now able to access one free credit report a year, so there is no excuse not to be vigilant in checking the report to make sure you keep in good standing with creditors and check for inaccuracies. If you spot something, alert your card company or the creditor immediately. You may also want to subscribe to a credit protection service that alerts you any time a change takes place on your credit report.

Your plan of action if something goes wrong

*Contact the fraud departments of each of the three major credit bureaus

Contact Equifax, Experian and TransUnion's fraud departments and let them know that you are an identity theft victim and request that a "fraud alert" be placed in your file, along with a victim's statement asking that creditors call you before opening any new accounts or changing your existing accounts.

*Contact your creditors

Make a list of all your creditors and contact any creditor in which you feel the account may have been tampered with. Speak with someone in the security or fraud department and follow up with a letter.

*File a report with your local police

File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place. Get a copy of the police report in case the bank, credit card company or others need proof of the crime.

*Keep records of everything

Keep detailed records of everything involved in your efforts to clear up fraud, including copies of written correspondence and records of telephone calls.

For more information on San Diego Metropolitan Credit Union, visit www.sdmcu.org.>

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