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Protect yourself from identity theft

Every time you open your mail, use your credit cards, pay bills or write a check, you're taking a risk - a risk that could mean losing your identity, a loss that may cost you up to hundreds of thousands of dollars and damaged credit for years to come. So prevalent is identity theft that, in 2006 alone, Congress introduced 34 bills to help protect consumers against it. According to the U.S. Department of Justice, it's the fastest growing crime in America, claiming more than 10 million victims per year.

How thieves steal your identity

In order to protect yourself, it's important to understand how identity theft works. It is alarmingly easy to do. All a thief needs is your Social Security number, driver's license and phone number and they can buy a car, make other large purchases on credit for which you'll be liable, apply for credit cards, rent an apartment or apply for a job. What's worse is that you won't find out about it for weeks or several months until you apply for credit somewhere and are rejected because of the delinquency caused by the thief.

Thieves can steal your personal information to assume your identity by stealing your purse or wallet taking new checks or pre-approved credit card offers from your mailbox; sifting through your trash to retrieve your Social Security number or bank and credit card account numbers; calling you at home and asking for information to verify an account; or sending out spoof e-mails on the Internet and asking you to confirm personal information.

A thief can use your personal information -- available from everyday financial transactions -- to open a new credit card account in your name. After obtaining your personal information, identity thieves will complete a "change of address" form to divert future mailings that could potentially notify you of the theft. 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:

¥ Safeguard your Social Security number. Don't print or write it on checks or give it to anyone unless absolutely necessary.

¥ 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, and never respond to e-mails requesting your account number or PIN, even if it appears to be legitimate.

¥ Memorize your PINs. Don't write them or your passwords down or carry them with you.

¥ 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.

¥ Don't leave information behind. Always take your credit card and ATM receipts with you after a transaction instead of throwing them away.

¥ Shred bank account information, charge card receipts and all 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, contact (888) 5-OPTOUT or www.optoutprescreen.com.

¥ Purchase a cross-shredder and use it for all trash that contains any personal information.

¥ Request online statements from your credit card companies and bank when possible.

¥ Know to whom you're writing a check, and be careful. You're giving someone all the information printed on the check, including your account number and signature.

¥ If your bank offers online banking, use it to view activity regularly.

¥ Check your credit rating regularly with one of the three major credit bureaus. If you find new accounts you don't recognize or an unusual number of inquiries from creditors or negative items, take action immediately.

¥ Keep good records. Make a list of all your bank accounts and credit cards including account numbers, credit limits and contact numbers, and keep it in a safe place.

¥ When shopping online, only make purchases on secure Web sites. Look for a padlock or key icon in your browser that tells you you're on a secure site.

¥ Use one credit card or prepaid card online - preferably one with a low credit limit - for all your online shopping. Or use a prepaid card for online purchases.

¥ Invest in security software and consider installing spam-filtering, anti-virus, spyware detection and firewall software on your computer to protect yourself against hackers and other privacy threats.

What to do if you if your identity is stolen

Unfortunately, even if you follow the above steps and remain vigilant with your personal and financial information, your identity can still be stolen. If it is, 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. Union Bank of California offers a complete Identity Theft kit at www.uboc.com/identitytheft. Call all banks, credit card issuers, and other financial institutions affected by the fraud. Ask them to put a hold on compromised accounts or close fraudulent new accounts.

¥ If fraudulent new accounts were opened in your name, complete an Identity Theft Affidavit and Fraudulent Account Statement from the Federal Trade Commission and send copies to the appropriate institutions.

¥ If your checks were stolen or misused, close the account and open a new one. Alert the major check verification companies as well as the fraud department of your bank.

¥ Contact credit bureaus and authorities - notify all three major credit bureaus of the fraud in writing.

¥ Ask credit bureaus to put a fraud alert on your credit file to inform creditors that your credit history may not be accurate and to include a statement in your file asking creditors to call you directly before opening new accounts in your name or making changes to your existing accounts.

¥ Ask for copies of your credit report. If you're a victim of identity theft, you're entitled to a free copy of your report to check for inaccuracies.

¥ File a police report with the local police department where the identity theft occurred and contact your local law enforcement agency.

¥ Alert the appropriate federal and state authorities such as the Social Security Administration, U.S. Postal Service and the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Rebuild your good credit

Even if you've been a victim of identity theft, you can rebuild your good credit with time, patience and the right resources. 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 having your identity stolen. 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.

Benoit is market president of Union Bank of California.

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