What is identity theft, and how do you protect yourself?

Identity theft, the illegal use of a target’s personal information, such as a social security or credit card number, to pose as that person for financial gain, is rapidly growing both in the United States and abroad. With 8.1 million victims and $37 billion dollars lost in 2010, identity theft is big business. According to the Federal Trade Commission, credit card fraud is the most common way that identity thieves monetize their illegal operations. Credit card fraud can have a severe impact on your finances and credit score, and it may take you many agonizing months, even years, to fully recover. To reduce the chances that you will fall victim to identity theft, the following measures will deter thieves from successfully targeting you.

Properly dispose of documents containing sensitive personal information. Account balances, deposit slips, credit card bills and offers, and other important items that reveal your account, credit card, and social security numbers should be kept in a secure location or thoroughly destroyed. Use a paper shredder before throwing them away; identity thieves often find all the information they need in their victim’s garbage.

Be mindful of what information you give out and to whom you give it. Never share your credit card or SSN on social networking sites like Facebook. When shopping online, make sure you only buy from reputable vendors, and be certain that the site’s domain is correct. Identity thieves frequently create dummy pages that look like well known e-commerce sites but are hosted under a different URL. These sites exist only to steal the credit card information of shoppers.

Although identity theft is often a high tech operation, it can also be as easy and as common as stealing a wallet. If your wallet or purse goes missing, immediately file a report with your Credit Union, alert the authorities, and closely monitor credit reports and credit card activity. Never carry your social security card with you.

Even the most careful consumers can be successfully targeted. If you have reason to believe that you are a victim of identity theft, you should place a fraud alert on your credit reports through a consumer reporting company and contact local and federal officials.

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