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The Story of Identity Theft

Identity theft is an increasingly common crime, with approximately 11.6 million adult victims in 2011. That is a 13 percent increase over the prior year. It is estimated that there are 19 new victims every minute. All it takes is a couple of careless acts to become a victim. Fortunately, once you see how easy it is for a criminal to commit the crime of identity theft, you'll also see how simple it is to protect yourself.

It often starts with a careless act or a simple mistake. Sifting through mail or cleaning out filing cabinets and tossing papers with personal information in the trash, answering the phone on the run and giving the person on the other end identifying information, like a social security number or account number, because the business name they give you sounds familiar are a couple examples of what could make you a victim.

Once such details are harvested from your trash bin on the curb, from a spoof phone call or e-mail, or from a business that handles your credit card and other information in a sloppy manner, your financial nightmare may be just ahead. Some criminals make direct use of that information, setting up credit card accounts in your name and using your identity for a variety of fraudulent purposes. Other criminals sell your information to other criminals so they can use it. Organized crime has gotten into the act, making transnational volume identity data deals that span the globe.

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An Amazingly Easy Crime That's Simple To Prevent

It can take a while for a person to realize what has happened. The illegitimate credit card accounts and other financial deals are set up with different addresses, so the victim doesn't see the bills right away. Often, a person is completely unaware of the fraud until he or she tries to get a loan or mortgage, applies for some type of credit, or requests credit report information. Then, the fraud becomes apparent via the unfamiliar charges and debts in his or her name and a destroyed credit score. The financial snarl can take years to work out.

There are some simple ways to prevent yourself from being victimized by this type of crime:

  1. Use a paper shredder when disposing of bills and other documents containing personal and financial information.
  2. Regularly review your credit reports.
  3. Be careful of what information you give out, especially your social security number.
  4. Retrieve your postal mail daily. Don't let it accumulate in the mail box. If you're out of town, have someone you trust retrieve your mail or ask the Postal Service to discontinue your mail delivery for the time you're away.
  5. Stop pre-approved credit card offers, which are a target of identity thieves. You can have your name removed from the credit bureau marking lists by calling toll-free to 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688)
  6. Password-protect everything that can be protected, not just your bank and credit accounts. This includes phones and computers.
  7. Create complex passwords, not obvious passwords that are easy to guess.
  8. Consider using fake answers to account security questions (rather than your mother's real maiden name, your dog's name, etc).

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Do not relay sensitive data via e-mail or telephone, unless you are fully confident of the recipient and their intent. Even if an e-mail appears to be from your bank, it may not be. There are very sophisticated scam artists who are able to copy the look and feel of your bank's e-mail and website format. If it is a communication that you did not initiate, perhaps asking for account numbers or passwords, there is a very good chance it may be a scammer phishing for information. Don't click on links embedded within an e-mail unless you are absolutely certain of the purpose and the content of the link destination. If you receive an email that appears to be from your bank, instructing you to click a link, don't do it. Rather, open a new browser window and go directly to your bank's website to access your account.

Being mindful of just how easy it is for fraudsters to harvest your information and use it to commit identity theft is the first step to preventing such a thing from happening to you. Protect your identity and your finances by taking these simple steps to protect your personal and financial information a habit. That small investment of time and effort will go a long way towards helping to keep your identity safe from fraudulent use.