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Six Ways to Limit Your Risk of Identity Theft

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By Marshall Loeb, MarketWatch

RISMEDIA, Sept. 21, 2007-(MarketWatch)-Identity theft strikes nearly 10 million Americans each year, says a 2003 study by the Federal Trade Commission. While there’s no way to guarantee that you won’t become one of the victims, you can minimize your risk by following these six simple rules:

1.) Carry as little information as possible. The more you lug around with you, the easier you make it for an opportunist to assume your identity. So try to limit the contents of your wallet to the bare necessities: one credit card, an ATM card and a driver’s license. Whatever you do: Don’t walk around with your Social Security card, birth certificate or passport unless it’s absolutely necessary.
2.) Keep a list of account numbers and contact information. No matter how conscientious you are, you may end up the victim of a robbery (or simple absentmindedness), so prepare for the worst. Keep a copy of all of your account numbers along with relevant contact information in a safe place. This will streamline the process of reporting cards missing and ordering replacements.
3.) Secure your computer. Virus and spyware protection are your first line of defense; make sure you’ve installed that software on your system. Then, set up your computer to automatically download any updates or “patches.” When choosing passwords, it’s best to go with something intricate, preferably a combination of letters, numbers, and characters. But keep passwords simple enough that you can memorize them so you don’t have to keep a written record. Avoid using readily available information, such as your mother’s maiden name, your birthday or your Social Security number.
4.) Protect your checks. When preparing to order new checks, don’t make the mistake of throwing the leftover checks in the bin without destroying them first. It’s also wise to avoid having new checks sent to your home as they could easily fall into the wrong hands. Instead, request to pick the checks up from your local branch. Warning: Never have your Social Security number printed on your checks!
5.) Watch what you throw away. We’ll say it again: It pays to invest in a shredder. You’re tempting fate when you throw away financial information, like bank statements, ATM receipts and credit-card offers.
6.) Place a fraud alert on your account. If you’re particularly concerned about identity theft, go the extra mile: contact the fraud departments of the three major credit bureaus, Experian, TransUnion and Equifax, and have a fraud alert placed on your file. After the alert goes into effect (usually within 24 hours), the agencies will contact you by phone to verify any new activity on your account. But be warned: your account will be monitored for only 90 days unless you reactivate the fraud alert.

Marshall Loeb, former editor of Fortune, Money, and the Columbia Journalism Review, writes for MarketWatch.

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