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Protecting Yourself Against Identity Theft

Know the Score

Posted: February 25, 2008 5:01 p.m.
Updated: April 25, 2008 5:02 a.m.
Identity theft is a serious crime that every year claims victims from every walk of life. It has many sources and skilled identity thieves use a variety of methods to steal your information without your knowledge to commit fraud.

Some thefts are done by "dumpster diving." This is done by rummaging through trash looking for bills or other paperwork with personal information. There's another method called "skimming" which involves using a special storage device to steal credit/debit card numbers when your card is being processed. We've all heard of "phishing" if we use a computer, and this is done by sending spam or pop-up messages to you while pretending to be a financial institution and asking for your personal data.

Another method is down by thieves completing a "change of address" form at the post office and having your billing statements diverted to another location. Then, there's the old-fashioned plain "stealing." They steal your wallets and purses, mail and new checks or tax information. They might even steal personal records from their employers, or bribe employees who have access to personnel files for information.

Identity theft can cost you time and money, and it can destroy your credit and ruin your good name. The three methods of fighting this crime is to deter, detect and defend. Let's look at each of these:

* Shred financial documents and paperwork with personal information before discarding.
* Protect your Social Security number by not carrying your card in your wallet or writing/printing it on your checks. Give it out only if absolutely necessary or ask for another identifier to be used.
* Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you know who you are dealing with and it is a "secure" server connection.
* Don't use an obvious password like your birthday, your mother's maiden name or the last four digits of your Social Security number.
* Keep your personal information in a secure place at home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help or are having work done in your home.

* Detect suspicious activity by routinely monitoring your financial accounts and billing statements. Be alert to signs that require immediate attention like bills not arriving as expected, unexpected credit card or account statements, denials of credit for no apparent reason and calls or letters about purchases you did not make.
* Inspect your credit report. These reports contain information about you including what accounts you have and your bill paying history. The law requires the major nationwide consumer reporting companies - Equifax, Experian and TransUnion - to give you a free copy of your credit report each year if you ask for it. Call 1-877-322-8228 or visit, a service created by these three companies, to order your free credit reports each year.
* Review and inspect your financial statements regularly looking for charges you did not make.

* Place a "Fraud Alert" on your credit reports as soon as you suspect ID theft and review your reports carefully. The alert tells creditors to follow certain procedures before they open new accounts in your name or make changes to your existing accounts. The toll-free numbers (a call to any one of them is sufficient) for placing an initial 90-day fraud alert is:

  • Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
  • Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (393-3742)
  • TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289

* Close your account that have been tampered with or are fraudulent by calling the fraud departments of each company. Follow up in writing, with copies of supporting documents.
* Use the ID Theft Affidavit at to support your written statement.
* Ask for verification that the disputed account has been closed and the fraudulent debts discharged.
* Keep copies of documents and records of your conversations about the theft.
* File a police report to help you with creditors who may want proof of the crime.
* Report the theft to the Federal Trade Commission to help law enforcement officials across the country in their investigations. They can be reached online at, by phone at 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338) or TTY at 1-866-653-4261, or by mail at: Identity Theft Clearing house, Federal Trade Commission, Washington, DC 20580.

Your identity is valuable and its theft can affect every aspect of your life. It can affect your credit standing, your ability to buy a car or a house, even get a job or medical care - and it takes years to repair the damage. It can happen to any of us, in ways we never imagined, so remember to deter, detect and defend yourself by keeping this information handy.

Commentary by Dr. Maureen Stephenson, a local author and owner of REMS Publishing & Publicity. Her column represents her own views, and not necessarily those of The Signal.


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