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ID Theft: How to Protect Your Identity

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Identity theft is a crime where someone steals your personal information and uses it without permission, usually to get money. A thief can use your identity to get a credit card, buy a gun or even get a home loan. Every three seconds, there's a new victim of identity theft. Most of them don't even know it. AGO recieved 238 identity theft consumer complaints from Jan. 2013 - present.

In 2012, 12.6 million people were the victims of identity theft, and it cost each of them an average of $365 to repair the damage -- total of $4.6 billion. It costs some people tens of thousands.

Last year, identity theft cost the IRS more than $5 billion dollars.

Common Schemes
Thieves don't have to break into your home to steal your identity.

In public places, for example, people may watch over your shoulder as you enter personal information like credit card numbers on a computer, or listen while you read them over the phone.

Even the area near your home or office might not be secure. "Dumpster diving" is still a common way thieves get their information. Criminals can search through trash cans or dumpsters to find copies of your checks or documents that have your name, address or phone number.

The Internet has become a really appealing place for criminals to target people. Some send fake emails, known as spam, to try to get people to respond with personal information. Others try to steal passwords or even bank information.

Protect Your Information
The best way to avoid becoming a victim is to be really careful with your personal information.

If you get an application for a "pre-approved" credit card, tear it up before you throw it away. Otherwise criminals may find it and try to apply for that card in your name.

Don't give out your Social Security number, mother's maiden name or account numbers to strangers who contact you. Someone from a bank or a government agency you've worked with should already have that information. If someone calls asking for it, hang up. Find the number for the bank yourself, and call them to find out if they really called you. They probably didn't.

Sometimes protecting your information is as simple as checking the mail. Remove your mail promptly after it's delivered, and if you're planning to be away from home, call the U.S. Postal Service at 1-800-275-8777 to request a vacation hold.

Online Safety

Keep your computer up to date with the latest software, including a firewall.

Make your passwords hard to guess. Avoid easily available information like your mother's name, your birthdate, your phone number or a series of numbers like 1234.

Check Your Credit Report
There's only one government-authorized website to get your free credit report: www.annualcreditreport.com. You can also call 877-322-8228.

Other companies offering a "free" report actually try to sell you other products or services.

You can have one free annual report per year from each of the three major bureaus.

If you're a victim of theft or fraud:
Contact your local police department or sheriff's office. Identity theft is a felony, and charges can be filed.

Place a fraud alert or a security freeze with one of the major credit reporting bureaus. A security freeze means that your credit file cannot be shared with potential creditors or insurance companies. That does mean that you can't get new credit while you have the freeze unless you ask for it to be lifted temporarily. A fraud alert tells companies they need to ask you first before opening credit in your name.

You should also report the crime to your bank, creditors and credit reporting agencies. Ask to speak to someone in the security or fraud department.

Sign up for the Fraud Watch Network at www.aarp.org.fraudwatchnetwork or by calling 800-646-2283. When you join the Fraud Watch Network, you'll receive alerts and notifications about new scams as they emerge.