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Protect Your Identity, Your Finances, Your Future

What exactly is identity theft? Identity theft occurs when someone steals your personal information to take over your credit accounts, open new ones, take out a loan, rent an apartment, access bank accounts, or commit many other crimes using your identity. When it strikes, the effects can be devastating. What's more, because it frequently involves no physical theft, identity theft may not be noticed by its victims until significant damage has been done — often, several months and thousands of dollars later.

Unfortunately, it's not possible to prevent identity theft and credit fraud entirely. However, by managing your personal information carefully, and with a full understanding of its importance, you can substantially reduce the likelihood that it will happen to you. The following tips show you how.

• Be careful about giving out personal information. Whether on the phone, by mail, or on the Internet, never give anyone your card number, Social Security number, or other personal information for a purpose you don't understand. Ask to use other types of identifiers when possible, and don't carry your SSN card. Be sure to keep it in a secure place.

• Protect your mail. To stop a thief from obtaining personal information about you by going through your through trash or recycling bin, tear or shred your charge receipts, credit applications, insurance forms, bank statements, expired charge cards, and preapproved credit offers. Deposit outgoing mail in post office collection boxes or at your local post office. Promptly remove mail from your mailbox after it's delivered. If you plan to go away, call the U.S. Postal Service at 800-275-8777 and request a vacation hold.

• 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.

• Pay attention to billing cycles. Contact creditors immediately if your bills arrive late. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your credit card account and changed your billing address.

• Safeguard personal information in your home. Especially if you are having service work done in your home, employ outside help, or have a roommate.

• 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 it.

• Be smart about passwords and PINs. Memorize your passwords and personal identification numbers 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 SSN or your phone number, or a series of consecutive numbers.

• Fraud Alerts. You may place an initial 90 day Fraud Alert by calling any one of the 3 nationwide credit reporting companies. The agency that accepts your request will share your request with the other two credit reporting companies, which will add the alert to your file or request that you provide them additional information. You will receive a confirmation when an alert is added to your file.

• Check your credit report regularly. Checking your credit report can help you catch mistakes and fraud before they wreak havoc on your personal finances. Make sure your report is accurate and includes only those activities you've authorized. It's also a good idea to review your credit report from each of the three major credit reporting agencies every year — it's possible that information is reported to one but not the others.

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Nathan B. Hoffman, AV-Preeminent 

Estate & Trust, Elder Law, Real Estate/Construction and Business Litigation