It’s your identity, protect it

It’s Christmas, that season of peace on Earth, consumerism and identity theft. You’ve heard the horror stories: credit destroyed, criminal records augmented, jobs lost. Yeah, identity theft is serious business—some 10 million Americans are victimized in this way every year—and maybe you’re a little more at risk during the Christmas season, but it’s only because you and your wallet are shopping more.

The most common identity theft, despite what you’ve heard, is not thieves going through your trash looking for account numbers, although that undoubtedly happens. It’s not even performed by greasy thieves with dew rags and crank habits. The most common identity theft is performed by family members who have access to your credit cards, account numbers and passwords.

However, there are some things you can do to prevent identity theft, and this is a good time of year to reiterate them. New Year’s Day would be a good time to change passwords to help moderate any security breaches that have already happened.

The first thing you want to do is opt out of junk mail credit-card offerings by calling 888-567-8688. This is simply to prevent a would-be thief from applying for a credit card in your name.

Check your credit reports. According to the Federal Trade Commission, you can visit or call (877) 322-8228, a service created by the big three credit reporting companies, to order your free credit reports each year. You also can write: Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

Report any suspicious activity on your credit-card, debit-card or bank statements within 60 days to limit your liability. Check your statements every month.

Don’t carry your Social Security number in your wallet or purse.

You don’t have to shred financial papers before you throw them out—this is really an uncommon type of identity theft—but it couldn’t hurt.

Victims of identity theft can request a seven-year fraud alert on their reports. This requires creditors to contact them before issuing a line of credit.

Don’t give out personal information on the phone, through the mail, or over the Internet unless you know who you are dealing with. You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but even sophisticated Internet users can get fooled by a good phishing scam. (This is when you get an e-mail message that looks like it’s from a company, bank, credit card company or even eBay, including the use of the company trademark. It seeks financial information, often under the guise of “confirming” your account information.")

Don’t click on any links on unsolicited e-mails. Those who do so risk downloading spyware and viruses.

Finally, use a little common sense in creating passwords. Don’t use Social Security numbers, your children’s names, mother’s maiden name or other information that you have included in other Web sites that may have been compromised. Use a combination of numbers and letters, and short phrases (l0ve2bite) are better than one-word passwords. If you must keep a list of passwords, don’t store it on your computer, keep it on paper in a different room than your computer.