Protect your identity

Monday, January 12, 2004

With just a few bits of information and the click of a computer mouse, a thief can steal part of your life.

It's certainly not a new crime, but identity theft is beginning to appear more frequently in Southeast Missouri. Cape Girardeau and Jackson police each receive about 20 reports of such theft each year. More than 27 million Americans are victims of identity theft, according to a survey by the Federal Trade Commission.

In today's society it is hard to keep private information truly private. With the increase of debit-card use, Internet shopping and electronic payments it's simple for a thief to find your personal information -- the data you normally wouldn't want to share.

Simple facts about you, like your birth date, Social Security number and bank information can be all it takes to wipe out your good credit rating.

With those bits of information, a skilled thief can assume your identity, open new bank accounts and write bad checks, establish new credit card accounts without paying the bills and even run up utility or phone bills, all in your name.

Recovering from identity theft can take some time as you reopen bank accounts and rebuild your credit rating.

But there are some simple things you can do to help protect yourself. And with the rise in identity theft and fraud, it seems prudent to begin thinking about how well you are defending your identity.

Here are a few things you should consider:

If you suspect you're a victim of identity theft, immediately placing a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number should be your first action. Alerting credit card companies can help keep a thief from making new charges on your account and costing you money.

When you make a purchase with your credit card, always take all carbon copies and receipts with you.

Shred all personal documents, including your monthly billing and bank statements, before you throw them away. Some credit card companies advise their customers against even leaving payments in envelopes out for mail pickup; it could be tempting for a thief. The less a thief can discover about you, the better.

Limiting the number of credit cards you use and carry in your wallet can help keep your identity safe. And making sure that you are constantly aware of your surroundings when you use ATM machines and credit cards can help ward off potential thieves.

In this electronic age, the instant sharing of information can pose a threat to your identity if it falls into the wrong hands. Be alert.

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