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March 10, 2009

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You can't open the paper or look on the news without learning about how yet another criminal has stolen the identity of some unsuspecting victim. Identity theft occurs when a thief misappropriates your personal information, like your social security number or your driver's license, and then they use that data for their own financial gain. For example, if they get hold of your social security card or your social security number, they might open up a number of credit card accounts without your knowledge or consent. That is fraud.

The Federal Trade Commission says that this type of fraud accounted for 60% of all the complaints of they received. So clearly identity theft is a huge problem. In fact, identity theft is the fastest-growing white collar crime in the country.

Here are some ideas about what you can do to thwart an identity thief:

1. Never give out your social security number, or only do so when it is absolutely necessary. If you are in a store or doing business with someone who requests your social security number, ask them if you can give them a substitute number, like your driver's license. Resist giving out your social security number because it literally represents the keys to the kingdom for an identity thief.

2. Do not ever--under any circumstances--give out your personal information over the phone or the internet to someone who has contacted you unsolicited. If it is a legitimate company, tell the representative that you will not give out this information due to the threat of identify theft. Ask them for their 800 number so you can call them back, or request written material by mail that you can evaluate on your own time. You never know who could be calling on the other end of the phone, no matter how professional or legitimate they may sound.

3. Shred sensitive information. Sensitive information is anything from free credit offers to credit card bills and anything that might have your identifying information or your credit numbers on there. Some thieves engage in what is called dumpster diving. In other words, they get your information right out of the trash. Do not make it easy for them to do this.

4. Keep your wallet in a secure place. If you are at work, make sure you keep your wallet, purse, hand bags, or whatever you use to carry money and credit cards in a locked drawer. Believe it or not, the work place is one of the main places where identity theft occurs.

5. Keep an eye on your credit report. At the very least you should be checking your credit file once a year. You can now get your credit report free of charge, thanks to a new federal law, from all three credit reporting agencies: TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. All you have to do is log on to www.annualcreditreport.com to take a look at what's in your credit file.

6. Dont carry your credit cards with you unnecessarily. If you get robbed, or a thief steals your purse at the movies,, at least they'll only get your bag, but not all of your credit information.

7. Purchase identity theft insurance. This insurance reimburses your for your out of pocket expenses like time lost on the job, mailing costs, and even sometimes the expense of having a lawyer to clean up the mess that an identity thief has created. There are a number of companies that offer identity theft insurance such as American Express, American International Group (AIG), Farmer's, and Traveler's Insurance as well.

If you are victimized by identity theft--and it does affect as many as 10 millions Americans each year--make sure you notify all the credit bureaus immediately. They can put an alert on your credit file and that will freeze it for the time being so that no one else that can open up unauthorized accounts without your permission.

You should also contact your local police department. Report what happened, and do not be shy about it at all because it could be the case that somebody in your general vicinity or your region is victimizing other people as well. Your tips might help the local police department crack the case.

Finally, notify the Federal Trade Commission (www.fcc.gov). There is also a fabulous resource center in San Diego called the Identity Theft Resource Center (www.idtheftcenter.org).

It's my sincere hope that you never find yourself subjected to the very awful affects of identity thief. But if you do, at least you'll know some steps to take and how to handle yourself accordingly.

--From Chapter 11, Zero Debt for College Grads

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Filed Under: Workplace Issues

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