Protect yourself
by preventing identity theft

Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in America. Last year, 700,000 people were victims. Seniors are especially vulnerable because of their trusting nature and because they have more financial assets than younger people. With today's low CD interest rates, seniors should be particularly wary of strangers who try to sell them a high rate certificate of deposit over the phone. They may only be trying to steal your personal information.

Here's an example of how easy identity theft happens, from a corporate attorney who sent the following memo to the employees of his company. We pass it along for your information.

"We've all heard horror stories about fraud that's committed using your name, address, Social Security Number, credit, etc. Unfortunately I (the author of this piece who happens to be an attorney) have firsthand knowledge, because my wallet was stolen last month. Within a week, the thieves ordered an expensive monthly cell phone package, applied for a VISA credit card, had a credit line approved to buy a Gateway computer, received a PIN number from the Department of Motor Vehicles to change my driving record information online, and more.

Here's some critical information to limit the damage from identity theft in case it happens to you or someone you know. As everyone always advises, cancel your credit cards immediately. But, the key is having the toll free numbers and your card numbers handy so you know whom to call. Keep those where you can find them easily. And, file a police report immediately in the jurisdiction where it was stolen; this proves to credit providers that you were diligent, and is a first step toward an investigation (if there ever is one).

Finally, here's what is perhaps most important: Immediately call the three national credit reporting companies and the Social Security Administration; have them place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security Number. I had never heard of doing that until advised by a bank that called to tell me an application for credit was made over the Internet in my name. The alert means any company that checks your credit knows your information was stolen and they have to contact you by phone to authorize new credit. By the time I was advised to do this, almost 2 weeks after the theft, all the damage had been done.

[Also call the Federal Trade Commission's consumer-fraud hotline at 1-887-IDTHEFT (1-877-438-4338) for assistance. You can visit the Federal Trade Commission's online site by clicking here on Identity Theft.]

There are records of all the credit checks initiated by the thieves' purchases, none of which I knew about before placing the alert. Since then, no additional damage has been done, and the thieves threw my wallet away this weekend (someone turned it in). It seems to have stopped them in their tracks."

The telephone numbers (and Internet addresses) are:

Equifax: 1-800-525-6285 (www.equifax.com)

Experian: 1-888-397-3742 (www.experian.com)

TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289 (www.transunion.com)

Social Security Administration (fraud line): 1-800-269-0271

Preventing identity theft. Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself from identity theft, or at least minimize the damage:

1. Your wallet or billfold. Place the contents on a photocopy machine; do both sides of each license, credit card, debit card, etc. (If you copy more than one item per page, match the front and back side of each item with a handwritten notation.) Then, if your wallet or billfold is lost or stolen, you'll know what you had in it and the account numbers and phone numbers to call and cancel. Keep the copy in a safe place. If you have a scanner on your computer, scan it and store it on a CD, memory stick, flash card, or even a floppy (if you still use them), not just on your hard drive.

2. Your Social Security card. Take it out of your wallet or billfold. Keep it at home with your other important papers. Don't allow your Social Security number to be printed on your checks. And, the next time you renew your driver's license, tell the examiner that you don't want it on your license; most states will comply.

3. Credit reports. Review yours at least once a year to spot any fraudulent credit accounts a thief may have opened in your name. Get reports from all 3 credit reporting agencies — each one probably has different information about your accounts. You can order the reports online for about $8 each by clicking on the links above; it's a smart investment.

4. Bank and credit card statements. Check them thoroughly every month, item-by-item, to see if any fraudulent purchases have been made.

5. Old credit card and ATM receipts, and other financial records. When you throw them out, shred them if possible. Otherwise, tear them into small pieces and put them in your kitchen garbage — not your recycle bin.

6. Paying your bills. Don't put your payment envelopes in your mailbox for the mailman to pick up. A thief can get there first and steal your checking and credit card account numbers simply by opening your mail. Instead, take your payment envelopes to the nearest Post Office or U.S. Mail drop box.

7. Credit card solicitations. To keep thieves from applying for credit cards from offers you receive in the mail, tear each application into small pieces and put them in your kitchen garbage — not your recycle bin. To stop receiving prescreened credit offers, call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688); to reduce junk mail, annoying telemarketing calls, and unwanted email, click here.

8. "Convenience Checks." The so-called convenience checks your credit card company sends out to encourage you to spend more money are an easy target for thieves. Most people don't realize they are real checks. If a thief endorses one he finds in your trash, it will show up as a cash advance on your next statement. So, whether they come along with your monthly bill or in a separate letter, throw them just like other financial records described in #5 above.

9. Scams. Crooks frequently use official-looking mail to steal your identity. Some of the latest scams involve IRS forms, particularly W-9095 or W-8888. They're fakes designed to get you to reveal personal financial information. If you get them, or any other form from the IRS that you're suspicious about, call the IRS at 1-800-829-1040 before filling them out.