Nearly 14 million Americans have been victim to one of the fastest
growing crimes in the world, identity theft. On average, that’s about 1
out of every 18 adults. Credit card numbers, driver’s license numbers,
social security numbers, date of birth, and other personal identification
can net criminals thousands of dollars in a short time. Most of the times,
identity thieves will obtain your personal identification numbers and
obtain credit in your name by having credit cards, goods or services
delivered to them. Because the bills are sent to the thief’s address, not
yours, you’ll probably be unaware that debt is mounting up in your name
until the collections department tracks you down. By the time you actually
realize what’s been going on, your credit report will already be trashed.

Even worse, credit reporting bureaus will be reluctant to change negative
credit without adequate proof that it was not created by you.

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Identity theft can come in many forms, an illegal immigrant may use
your social security number and date of birth for employment purposes or
to obtain a birth certificate. Sometimes personal identification numbers
are sold over and over to hundreds of individuals who in turn attempt to
obtain bogus credit in your name or establish utility services and run up
the bills. Arrested criminals have been caught using false names, DOBs,
and SSNs that belong to innocent people who have discovered that they have
criminal records because of a misused ID. It probably wouldn’t be easy
explaining to friend, family, and co-workers that you were mistakenly
arrested for an outstanding criminal warrant.

Identity theft can take months and sometimes even years to detect and
can take about the same time to correct the damage. According to the
California Public Interest Research Group and the Privacy Rights Clearing
House, victims of identity theft spend an average of 190 hours and $900 in
out-of-pocket costs (not including attorney fees) to fix their wrecked
credit problem. There have been cases reported where it has taken victims
years to restore their credit and good name, and had problems being able to
cash checks, obtain loans or even rent an apartment.Identity theft can
significantly traumatize anyone because it is unnerving to know (or not
know) the extent of the damage to your name, credit or reputation.

So what can be done to help prevent yourself from becoming a
potential victim? For starters, run a credit report on yourself to see if
there are any unknown credit inquiries or unauthorized accounts. It’s also
a good idea to limit the number of credit cards you have to reduce
exposure, and cancel any inactive accounts. Destroy all unused pre-
approved credit card and loan applications, the thief only has to fill them
out and redirect the return address to start using your credit. Never give
out any sort of important numbers (Driver’s license, Social Security
Number, credit card number, or bank account number) over the telephone even
if you know the person. Safeguard your credit, debit, and ATM card
receipts and shred them before disposing of them. Also shred any bank
account and tax documents you have. Don’t give out your PIN or write them
on your credit cards or ATM cards. Never leave your purse or wallet
unattended, at work, at restaurants, at health fitness clubs, in your
shopping cart, at church or at social gatherings. Always respond to written
credit card receipt notifications received in the mail. Never leave your
purse or wallet in open view in your car, even when locked. Obtain copies
of your credit report periodically to see if there are any unknown credit
lines in your name, most credit reports cost less than $10.

If you do become a victim, here’s a couple quick steps to get
yourself back on the right track. Report the incident to the police
immediately. If you know where your identification was stolen, report it to
those local authorities. Insist on being given a police report number a get
a copy to encloses in correspondence with credit agencies. Immediately
notify any one of the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert on
your file. Once an alert is placed, creditors must contact you before
opening any new accounts or changing existing ones. As soon as one of the
major credit bureaus receives your request for an alert, the other two
companies automatically do the same. After the alert has been placed, you
can request a free credit report from any of the major bureaus. Report all
stolen cards to the issuers immediately and request new card numbers.

Notify your bank in the event that your checks are stolen and request that
your account be closed. Contact the social security office immediately if
someone is using your social security number. Use an ID theft affidavit
when disputing new unauthorized accounts.

One of the easiest ways the average person can protect themselves is
to invest in a quality paper shredder to destroy documents with important
information on them. Strip cut shredders are the most often used and
generally the least expensive. They cut the paper in vertically in strips
anywhere from 1/8″ to 1/2″. Obviously, the more narrow strips provide
better security. A cross cut shredder is your best bet. It shreds paper
both vertically and horizontally into confetti like pieces. The downside
to this type of shredder is they often require a little more maintenance
and are more expensive. Expect a decent shredder to cost you at least $40-
$50. With enough time and patience, somebody could reconstruct any
shredded document. Cross cut shredders just make it that much harder for
them. Do to increased use of digital media, specific media shredders have
been produced to destroy CDs, disks, as well as credit cards in seconds.

Media shredders average around $40. A great guide to personal paper
shredders can be found at
http://desktoppub.about.com/cs/paper/bb/papershredders.htm .

A recent amendment to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requires
each of the major nationwide consumer reporting companies to provide you
with a free copy of your credit reports, at your request, once every 12
months. Free reports are being phased in during a nine-month period,
rolling from states in the West to the states in the East.As of
September 1, 2005, free reports are accessible to all Americans, regardless
of where they live. To order your free annual report from one or all the
national consumer reporting companies, visit www.annualcreditreport.com or
call toll-free 877-322-8228. For more information on Identity theft and
how to protect yourself, visit www.consumer.gov/idtheft .