It is estimated that as many as 16 million households fell victim to identity theft in 2012. This type of theft is the fastest growing financial crime in the U.S. Reduce your risk with these simple, and mostly free, steps:

(1) Get off mailing lists for pre-approved credit card offers – a gold mine for identity thieves – by visiting optoutprescreen.com or calling toll free (888) 567-8688.

(2) Don’t carry your social security number. You shouldn’t carry any card or document that has your social security number on it - not even your Medicare card (the number is the same as your social security number). Carry it only for planned doctor/hospital visits. You will get emergency treatment without it. If you must, carry a photocopy with several digits snipped out.

(3) Order a copy of your credit report. Viewing your credit report can alert you to any fraud or errors. You are entitled to one free credit report annually from each of the three major credit reporting bureaus. By accessing one of the three credit reports every four months at annualcreditreport.com, you will have up-to-date information year-round. 

(4) Guard your mail from theft. Instead of leaving your mail to be picked up in an unlocked mail box, take it to the post office or a post office collection box. Be sure you remove your incoming mail right away. Leaving mail in your mail box overnight is an invitation for trouble.

(5) Don’t give out personal information unless you initiated the contact. Be aware of scams such as “phishing” in which the identity thief pretends to be from a legitimate organization or business to retrieve personal information from you.

(6) Safeguard your personal data on your electronic devices. Be sure your virus protection is updated regularly, and use a firewall program to protect your computer. Your smart phone should also have a password in place – together with an auto lock setting.

(7) Avoid use of debit cards when you travel. Instead use credit cards. With credit cards, you have the ability to dispute fraudulent charges. Those charges can then be reversed. The criminal use of your debit card connects directly back to your bank account at home. 

(8) Carefully review your credit card statements. Review all of the charges on your cards to quickly discover if someone is making unauthorized charges.

(9) Maintain an emergency contact list. If your identity is stolen, time is of the essence. Make a list of phone numbers for all your financial institutions so that you can contact them quickly and efficiently. Also, keep a photocopy of the front and back of all of your credit and debit cards so that lost or stolen cards can be reported immediately.

(10) Shred unneeded documents containing personal information.

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