Almost every member of my family has had their identity stolen at some point or another. My husband's Social Security Number was being used by a woman in Indiana when he was a child. My sister had a credit card stolen by someone who worked at the credit card company. My mother-in-law had a phone account opened in her name - on the other side of the country.
Identity theft includes a wide range of crimes, from the use of a credit card to stolen information to open new accounts. Most of the time, thousands of dollars of debt are racked up for the victim.
With between 500,000 and 1 million new cases each year, identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes, according to the FBI. Most of the time, the thief gets away. When caught, most face restitution and no jail time.
Yet, the victim often has to spend over a year salvaging his or her credit. And we all pay. Many companies are left footing the bill. This results in higher interest rates and fees for all of us. We are all the victims of identity theft, directly and indirectly.
What can you do to protect yourself? Some things are out of your control. But if you are wise, the harder it will be for someone to steal your identity.
You should start by keeping a close eye on your finances. Read all of your credit card statements and bank account statements each month. Check your credit report annually. You can recieve a free credit report each year from each of the three major credit reporting agencies.
Go through your credit report carefully. You are looking for accounts you didn't open, charges you didn't make and collections that aren't yours. If you find problems, you need to report them immediately.
There are a lot of companies that ask for your Social Security Number for recordkeeping. Ask to use your driver's license number instead. Your SSN shouldn't be on your health insurance card. You don't need to carry the number on your person. Don't have it preprinted on your checks.
Never give out your personal information to anyone over the phone or the internet if you did not initiate the contact. If they call and ask, have them hang up and call the company back. Make sure you know who you are giving your information to.
Don't carry your PINs and passwords with you. Don't store your passwords on your computer. If you have to write them down, keep them in a locked drawer. Make your passwords hard to guess. Don't simply choose your mom's maiden name, your birthdate or the town you live in. If you can, use a mix of upper and lower case numbers, letters and symbols.
You need to keep track of your bills. If one is late or doesn't come at all, you need to call the company. A late or missing bill could mean that someone has stolen your account, moving your billing address.
You should shred all paperwork with your information on it. This includes credit card receipts and credit card offers. Put the remnants in with your kitchen garbage or child's dirty diapers and dumpster divers won't put them back together.
Don't simply mail your bill from your mailbox. Thieves love to take mail out of your box. Run by the post office or a drop box. If you are going out of town, don't let your mail pile up. One little trip through your mail can give a thief your bank account numbers, credit card numbers and personal family information.
If something does happen to your identity, you should have a list with all of your credit card numbers, bank account numbers, contact information for companies and a copy of your driver's license. Keep this in a safe deposit box or with your attorney. This will give you a quick list of who to call if your wallet or purse is stolen. Within an hour, you can alert all of your accounts as to the situation.
Remember, you should guard your personal information vigilantly. By being careful, questioning and wary, you can keep your information a little safer.
Martin Lukac represents http://www.RateEmpire.com and http://www.1AmericanFinancial.com , a finance web-company specializing in real estate and mortgage rates. We specialize in daily updates, mortgage news, rate predictions, mortgage rates and more. Find low home loan mortgage interest rates from hundreds of mortgage companies!