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Protect your identity

How careful are you with your social security number and other personal information? With the right numbers, someone else can claim your identity and leave you holding the bill. Author Julie Hood provides advice for protecting yourself.

Shock at the mailbox
Laura Link, a student in St. Louis, Missouri, was shocked when statements began arriving in her mailbox for items she didn't purchase. She eventually determined that she was the victim of a crime on the rise across the United States--identity theft. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch, June 25, 2000, p. E1) While it is impossible to completely eliminate your risk, you can take steps to minimize it.

Step #1: Protect your social security number
Your social security number is the best way for a thief to access your financial records. Do not carry your social security card in your wallet. If your social security number is printed on your driver's license, check to see if you can use an alternative number. Avoid giving out your number whenever possible. For example, if the local video rental store requests your social security number, ask them to use your phone number instead.

Step #2: Check your credit reports at least once a year
Identity theft can go undetected for months or years. Many consumers don't find out someone has used their identity until they try to purchase a home or car. But you can--and should--check your records at least once a year with the three main credit-reporting bureaus. They are Equifax (800-685-1111), Experian (888-397-3742) and Trans Union (800-888-4213). Fees vary by state but are typically $8.50 for each report requested. Fix any mistakes in writing with both the credit bureau and the creditor. Within a week of the change, you should receive a corrected report. Step #3: Use unique passwords
Do not use your mother's maiden name, your child's name or your pet's name. Do not use standard dictionary words (many hackers use programs that test passwords against the words in the dictionary). Include numbers in your password. For example, create a nonsense password like "nvc453."

Step #4: Change your passwords frequently
Only send your credit card number over the internet when you are certain you are transmitting via a "secure site." You should see a small lock in the lower right hand corner of your browser when you are using a secure site.

Step #5: Be cautious with digital signatures
On October 1, 2000, the Electronic Signatures in Global and National Commerce Act went into effect. As a result of this new legislation, an electronic contract is as binding as a paper contract. Digital signatures are very broadly defined. Clicking "I agree" on a web page becomes equivalent to signing a contract.

For important contracts, such as your mortgage, make sure your signature is encrypted. The best protection may be to wait until this new method of doing business becomes commonplace, and any early difficulties have been corrected. Congress is considering legislation to make it easier to protect yourself against identity theft, including free copies of credit reports.

And if the worst happens...
If you are a victim, contact the three credit bureaus and tell them you want a "fraud alert" placed on your account. Then, follow up with a written letter. The fraud alert ensures that potential creditors contact you before issuing a new credit card or changing the address on your account.

Obtain copies of your credit reports to verify that the fraud alert was issued. File a report with the police. Contact your creditors, and cancel any bad cards. For more information, request the booklet, "ID Theft: When Bad Things Happen to Your Good Name" from the Federal Trade Commission (877-438-4338) or download it from its web site.

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