Nearly 14 million Americans have been victim to one of the fastestgrowing crimes in the world, identity theft. On average, that's about 1out of every 18 adults. Credit card numbers, driver's license numbers,social security numbers, date of birth, and other personal identificationcan net criminals thousands of dollars in a short time. Most of the times,identity thieves will obtain your personal identification numbers andobtain credit in your name by having credit cards, goods or servicesdelivered to them. Because the bills are sent to the thief's address, notyours, you'll probably be unaware that debt is mounting up in your nameuntil the collections department tracks you down. By the time you actuallyrealize what's been going on, your credit report will already be trashed.Even worse, credit reporting bureaus will be reluctant to change negativecredit without adequate proof that it was not created by you.Identity theft can come in many forms, an illegal immigrant may useyour social security number and date of birth for employment purposes orto obtain a birth certificate. Sometimes personal identification numbersare sold over and over to hundreds of individuals who in turn attempt toobtain bogus credit in your name or establish utility services and run upthe bills. Arrested criminals have been caught using false names, DOBs,and SSNs that belong to innocent people who have discovered that they havecriminal records because of a misused ID. It probably wouldn't be easyexplaining to friend, family, and co-workers that you were mistakenlyarrested for an outstanding criminal warrant.Identity theft can take months and sometimes even years to detect andcan take about the same time to correct the damage. According to theCalifornia Public Interest Research Group and the Privacy Rights ClearingHouse, victims of identity theft spend an average of 190 hours and $900 inout-of-pocket costs (not including attorney fees) to fix their wreckedcredit problem. There have been cases reported where it has taken victimsyears to restore their credit and good name, and had problems being able tocash checks, obtain loans or even rent an apartment.Identity theft cansignificantly traumatize anyone because it is unnerving to know (or notknow) the extent of the damage to your name, credit or reputation.So what can be done to help prevent yourself from becoming apotential victim? For starters, run a credit report on yourself to see ifthere are any unknown credit inquiries or unauthorized accounts. It's alsoa good idea to limit the number of credit cards you have to reduceexposure, and cancel any inactive accounts. Destroy all unused pre-approved credit card and loan applications, the thief only has to fill themout and redirect the return address to start using your credit. Never giveout any sort of important numbers (Driver's license, Social SecurityNumber, credit card number, or bank account number) over the telephone evenif you know the person. Safeguard your credit, debit, and ATM cardreceipts and shred them before disposing of them. Also shred any bankaccount and tax documents you have. Don't give out your PIN or write themon your credit cards or ATM cards. Never leave your purse or walletunattended, at work, at restaurants, at health fitness clubs, in yourshopping cart, at church or at social gatherings. Always respond to writtencredit card receipt notifications received in the mail. Never leave yourpurse or wallet in open view in your car, even when locked. Obtain copiesof your credit report periodically to see if there are any unknown creditlines in your name, most credit reports cost less than $10.If you do become a victim, here's a couple quick steps to getyourself back on the right track. Report the incident to the policeimmediately. If you know where your identification was stolen, report it tothose local authorities. Insist on being given a police report number a geta copy to encloses in correspondence with credit agencies. Immediatelynotify any one of the three major credit bureaus to place a fraud alert onyour file. Once an alert is placed, creditors must contact you beforeopening any new accounts or changing existing ones. As soon as one of themajor credit bureaus receives your request for an alert, the other twocompanies automatically do the same. After the alert has been placed, youcan request a free credit report from any of the major bureaus. Report allstolen cards to the issuers immediately and request new card numbers.Notify your bank in the event that your checks are stolen and request thatyour account be closed. Contact the social security office immediately ifsomeone is using your social security number. Use an ID theft affidavitwhen disputing new unauthorized accounts.One of the easiest ways the average person can protect themselves isto invest in a quality paper shredder to destroy documents with importantinformation on them. Strip cut shredders are the most often used andgenerally the least expensive. They cut the paper in vertically in stripsanywhere from 1/8" to 1/2". Obviously, the more narrow strips providebetter security. A cross cut shredder is your best bet. It shreds paperboth vertically and horizontally into confetti like pieces. The downsideto this type of shredder is they often require a little more maintenanceand are more expensive. Expect a decent shredder to cost you at least $40-$50. With enough time and patience, somebody could reconstruct anyshredded document. Cross cut shredders just make it that much harder forthem. Do to increased use of digital media, specific media shredders havebeen produced to destroy CDs, disks, as well as credit cards in seconds.Media shredders average around $40. A great guide to personal papershredders can be found athttp://desktoppub.about.com/cs/paper/bb/papershredders.htm .A recent amendment to the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act requireseach of the major nationwide consumer reporting companies to provide youwith a free copy of your credit reports, at your request, once every 12months. Free reports are being phased in during a nine-month period,rolling from states in the West to the states in the East.As ofSeptember 1, 2005, free reports are accessible to all Americans, regardlessof where they live. To order your free annual report from one or all thenational consumer reporting companies, visit www.annualcreditreport.com orcall toll-free 877-322-8228. For more information on Identity theft andhow to protect yourself, visit www.consumer.gov/idtheft .
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