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How can I prevent identity theft?

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Identity theft is becoming more common. Victims of identity theft can spend months or even years, along with hard-earned money, cleaning up their good name and credit record. Identity thieves can use personal information to take over credit accounts and open new ones. They can use your good credit to get a job, take out a car loan or rent an apartment. Identity theft victims can lose job opportunities, be refused loans for education, housing or cars or even get arrested for crimes they didn't commit.

While it=s not possible to completely prevent identity theft and/or credit fraud, you can reduce its likelihood by managing personal information carefully. Consider these tips.

· Find out who has access to your information at work. Be sure to verify that records are kept in a secure location and are accessible only to employees who have a legitimate reason to access them.

· Shred or burn all papers that contain personal information. To prevent thieves from going through your trash or recycling bin to obtain personal information, tear or shred charge receipts, credit applications, insurance forms, bank statements, expired credit cards and pre-approved credit offers. You should never throw them in the garbage intact. Make sure business offices do the same with documents containing your information.

· Pay attention to your billing cycles. Contact creditors immediately if your bills arrive late. A missing bill can mean an identity thief has taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office.

· Be careful about giving out personal financial information. Whether by phone, mail or the Internet, never give anyone your credit card number, Social Security number or other personal information unless you initiated the activity and understand the transaction. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible.

· When ordering checks, have initials (instead of full first names) and last name printed on them. If your checkbook is stolen, thieves will not know whether you sign your checks with initials, first name or a shortened name. Your bank will know how you sign your checks, and will pull suspicious checks and call to verify the purchase.

· When using your checking account to pay credit card accounts, do not put the full account number on the “Memo” line. Instead, only include the last four digits of the account. The credit card company knows the rest of the number, and those handling your check as it passes through the processing channels won=t have access to the full number.

· Put your work phone number on your checks instead of your home number. If you have a post office box, use that instead of your physical address.

· Never have your drivers license or Social Security numbers printed on the checks.

· Avoid carrying your Social Security card in your wallet unless you know you will need it for a specific purpose. This is the most important and, consequently, the most sought-after piece of personal information. Also be cautious with your health insurance card, since your account number is often the same as your Social Security number. College students should be especially careful with student identification cards, since the student identification number is often a Social Security number. Students should ask for a randomly generated number if possible. Refrain from giving your number unless it is for a legitimate purpose, such as completing a loan application. Any agency or business can ask for your Social Security number, but only a few entities, such as motor vehicle departments, tax departments, welfare departments, banks, brokerages and employers, can actually demand it.

· Make photocopies of the contents of your wallet. Copy both sides of each license, credit card, etc. Keep copies in a place separate from your wallet. Usually the phone number for reporting stolen cards is on the back of the card. If all the information is copied, reporting a theft won’t be difficult.

· If you have a passport, make a photocopy and keep in a safe place. This will aid you in replacing the document if it is stolen.

· Guard your credit cards. Minimize the information and the number of cards you carry in your wallet. If you lose a card, contact the fraud division of the credit card company. If you apply for a new credit card and it doesn't arrive in a reasonable period, contact the issuer. Watch cashiers when you give them your card for a purchase. Also, when you receive a new card, sign it in permanent ink and activate it immediately. Make sure all cards are signed. Do not leave cards blank, since anyone can sign and use a blank card.

· Never fax your credit card number. Your credit card number can remain in the fax basket at the other end for hours. Anyone passing by can record your number and begin to use your card number fraudulently. It is even possible for criminals to intercept your credit card number while the fax is in transmission.

· Be smart about passwords and Personal Identification Numbers (PINs). Memorize your passwords and PINs instead of carrying them with you. Avoid using easily available information like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your Social Security number, your phone number or a series of consecutive numbers.

· When making Internet purchases, look for an address that begins https:\\. The “s” indicates that it is a secure connection and a small padlock symbol should appear in the bottom right hand corner of your screen, indicating it is safe to transmit your credit card number.

If your purse or wallet is stolen:

· Cancel all credit cards immediately. Contact the financial institution where you have your checking and savings accounts. Generally, your local bank can place a fraud alert on your accounts faster than a central number.

· Call the three national credit reporting agencies immediately to place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number. This alert means any company that checks your credit knows your information was stolen and it should contact you by phone to authorize new credit. To place a fraud alert on your account or to report fraud, contact: Equifax: 1-800-525-6285 or write: P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta GA 30374-0241 Experian (formerly TRW): 1-888-397-3742 or write: P.O. Box 9532, Allen TX 75013

Posted on 11 Jun 2004

Christine Jensen
Family & Consumer Sciences and 4-H/Youth Agent, Emery County

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