To help stem the tide, Congress passed a new anti-identity theft law this year, stiffening the potential prison sentences for these crimes. But as with many potential security issues, some preventive steps can be a wise investment. Experts recommend taking multiple measures to guard against identity theft:
Do not give out personal information on the phone, the Internet or in person unless you have initiated the contact and are sure of the other party's identity. Resist "phishing" — do not fill out official-looking (but bogus) forms arriving unsolicited over e-mail.
Use a shredder before you put financial statements or personal documents in the trash.
Do not carry around your Social Security card – you may lose it. Keep this and other important documents in a safe place in your home.
Decline to give your Social Security number to businesses asking for it. Few actually need this information. If your Social Security number appears as your driver's license identification number, ask to have a new number placed on your driver's license instead.
When picking passwords for financial accounts, avoid obvious choices, like your mother's maiden name or your birthday.
Keep regular track of the bills you expect to receive, and follow up with creditors if they do not arrive.
In short, while almost all of us could, in theory, fall victim to identity theft, common-sense safeguarding of your personal information, and consistent vigilance about your finance, can lower the odds or limit the damage.
"People need to be vigilant for early signs," says the FTC's Lefkovitz. "Review bank statements, credit card statements, check your credit report once a year. Even if something does happen, catch it early."
How to Respond to Identity Theft
Untangling a case of identity theft can be difficult — but acting quickly helps. If you believe you have been victim of an identity theft, the Federal Trade Commission recommends taking the following steps:
Contact any of the three major credit bureaus — Equifax, Experian and Trans Union — and have them place an alert on your file. The alert will be circulated among the bureaus and should halt new changes to your accounts.
File a police report. Some creditors might require one as proof that a crime has taken place.
Close accounts that have been used for suspicious activity.
File a complaint with the FTC, which keeps a central list of cases, and fill out an identity theft affidavit, for use in your future claims.