Protect your financial identity and avoid theft

In this day and age of computers and credit cards and information databases, it is almost becoming a question of when, not whether, you will become a victim of identity theft. The Federal Trade Commission says 27.3 million Americans were victims of identity thieves in the five years through 2003. “For several years we have been seeing anecdotal evidence that identity theft is a significant problem that is on the rise,” said Howard Beales of the FTC. “It is affecting millions of consumers and costing billions of dollars.”

Identity theft victims can have their financial lives ruined—not only can they lose money but their credit ratings and good name can be compromised. Even worse, the FTC says it often takes months before a victim realizes the crime occurred, and in that time much damage can be done.

Here are some steps you can take to avoid becoming a victim:

  • Use difficult passwords on credit card, bank and phone accounts. Avoid using your mother’s maiden name, your birth date, your phone number or the last four digits of your Social Security number.
  • Don’t give out personal information on the phone or through the mail or Internet unless you have initiated the contact or know who you are dealing with.
  • Guard your mail and trash from theft. Remove mail from your mailbox promptly, and stop mail while you are on vacation.
  • Tear up or shred receipts, credit applications or offers, insurance forms, doctor’s statements, checks, and bank statements.
  • Keep your Social Security number in a secure place and give it out only when necessary.

The FTC has other suggestions on avoiding theft and dealing with it if you become a victim. Visit its ID theft web site at