According to the Federal Trade Commission, about 9 million people a year are victims of identity theft, resulting in $50 billion of lost business — and the problem is expected to get worse. Experts believe that about half of such theft is committed by organized crime, and the other half by "dumpster diver," friends or family members.

Identity theft takes many forms. It begins when someone steals your personal information through one of a variety of methods, including rummaging through trash, using a special device to steal your number when you swipe your credit card, falsely posing as a legitimate business, diverting your account statements to a false address, and committing old-fashioned stealing.

Then the thief misuses the information, causing you possible problems such as missing a good job opportunity or being denied a loan for a new car. You may be forced to spend considerable time and money to repair the damage to your good name.

The best way to prevent identity theft is to monitor your record carefully by looking at your credit report twice a year, and especially before applying for a major loan or mortgage. In particular, watch for any unauthorized credit applications made in your name. Also, review your bank statements every month. If you notice errors, report them immediately.

Don't provide your driver's license number or credit card number to any organization you don't know, and don't give your Social Security number to anyone other than a trusted firm (such as a financial institution or the IRS). Shred documents that have account numbers or other personal information on them, rather than discarding these items in the regular trash.

You might consider enrolling in a fraud protection program that will scan your records constantly to detect unusual transactions. Such programs charge a fee for this service.

If you discover that you have been victimized, notify your credit card companies immediately and file a report with your police department. Follow up with credit bureaus to make sure the illegitimate charges are removed from your record and not counted against your credit score. You should also file an ID Theft Complaint with the Federal Trade Commission ( www.ftc.gov). Filing these reports promptly can help you later in the process of clearing your record.

Awareness is the most effective weapon against identity theft. By detecting a problem and taking immediate action, you will make the thief's job much more difficult.

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Dianne Webster, CFP, is a registered investment adviser with Integrated Financial Strategies LLC, 8 Star Lane, Amesbury, MA. She offers securities through Commonwealth Financial Network, Member FINRA, SIPC. Questions to be considered for future personal finance articles may be sent via e-mail to dwebster@ifslegacy.com.

 

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