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Protect Yourself From Identity Theft

Kate Traynor

Your good name is probably worth a lot to you—and it may also be invaluable to an identity thief.

Identity thieves steal information, such as a Social Security Number (SSN) and bank-account details, to obtain fraudulent credit or run up bad debts in another person’s name. Victims of identity theft are left with ruined credit and must spend time and money correcting and rebuilding their personal credit information.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) Bureau of Consumer Protection received more than 86,000 reports of identity theft last year. The nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center estimates that even more people—about 700,000—were victimized by identity thieves during 2001.

But according to FTC, there are ways to minimize the risk of having your identity stolen.

Lighten your wallet. Remove unnecessary identification, credit cards, and checks from your wallet. This gives thieves less material to work with and also leaves you with fewer bank and credit accounts to cancel if your wallet is stolen.

Guard your SSN. Your Social Security number is a cornerstone of your credit identity. Provide your SSN only when it is absolutely necessary, and never carry your Social Security card in your wallet. Also, do not indiscriminately display materials, such as a health plan card or identification badge, that list your SSN.

Know your billing cycle. If you do not receive an expected bill on time, call the creditor that issues the bill. An identity theft may have stolen the bill or changed your billing address in an attempt to buy time to run up charges on your account.

Review your credit report. FTC recommends that consumers request a copy of their credit report once a year. Separate reports are maintained by three national agencies—Equifax Credit Information Services Inc., Experian, and TransUnion LLC. Your credit report lists the major accounts you hold with creditors, including accounts that may have been wrongfully established in your name, and names the organizations that have asked to see your credit report. Residents of certain states are entitled to a free annual copy of their credit reports, which are otherwise available for a nominal fee.

Shred before you discard. The personal information that appears on your bank statements and bills can be used to establish fraudulent accounts in your name or obtain control of your current accounts. Credit-card offers, cellular-phone-service solicitations, and other proffers that you receive in the mail can likewise be used by an identity thief to establish credit or sign up for services in your name. Before you discard any such items, shred or thoroughly tear them.

To learn more about identity theft and find out what to do if your identity is stolen, visit