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How to Prevent Identity Theft

Computers, credit cards, and e-mail have made our lives more convenient and more efficient than ever before, but they have created other problems. It's now easier than ever for thieves to steal your personal information and use it to make purchases or carry out other illegal activities in your name. This is a crime known as identity theft.

Luckily, having your identity stolen is far from inevitable. It just takes a little vigilance on your part to keep your identity safe on your computer and out of the hands of would-be thieves. Here are seven smart strategies to protect your identity:

  • Be tight-lipped about personal information. Unless you are absolutely sure of who you are dealing with and confident in the safety of a company, don't give out your personal information over the phone or the Internet. This is particularly true for people who cold-call you or send you solicitation e-mails. Of all your vital information, having your Social Security number stolen can be the most damaging. Avoid writing it down if at all possible and don't carry your Social Security card around in your wallet. If people ask for your Social Security number, ask them if you can provide a different form of identification.

  • Shred papers frequently. Many identity thieves will root through your trash to find financial documents and the information they need to steal your identity. The easiest way to prevent this is to purchase an inexpensive shredder at an electronics or office supply store. Then, simply shred all credit card offers, paid bills, and other documents that reveal any of your personal information.

  • Be careful on the computer. Solicitation or spam e-mails are a great way for thieves to get their hands on your personal information. The best rule of thumb is that if you don't recognize the sender, don't click on a link in an e-mail. If it's an offer that looks intriguing to you, you can always go to the company's website to determine if it is legitimate. This is much more reliable than clicking on an e-mail of unknown origin. Also, you can avoid a lot of online issues by simply keeping your anti-virus software up to date.

  • Make your passwords fail-safe. Another important way to avoid identity theft on your computer is to make passwords difficult to figure out. Don't make them obvious, such as your last name, your pet's name, or the last four digits of your Social Security number. Instead, go with a longer password that's a combination of letters, numbers, and symbols. This will make it difficult for somebody to break into your accounts by guessing at your password.

  • Keep vital information locked up. If you have other people in your home, whether a roommate or a worker, it's important to keep all financial and personal information secure. Use passwords on your computer and lock any paper documents in a secure cabinet or safe.

  • Watch for warning signs. Once you've taken all these steps, you'll need to remain vigilant against any suspicious activity. Check all bills for purchases you didn't make and watch for mysterious credit cards or credit card statements, charges on your bank statement that you don't recognize, and expected bills that simply don't arrive. If any of these things occur, call your bank or credit card company immediately, file a police report, and contact the Federal Trade Commission.

  • Check your credit report. One final way to monitor your personal information and prevent identity theft is to review your credit report for any suspicious activity. The three credit monitoring companies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—are required by law to give you a free copy of your credit report every 12 months if you ask for it. To receive this report, visit www.AnnualCreditReport.com or call 877-322-8228.