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PUBLISHED: 5:19 PM on Wednesday, September 10, 2008
Learn the do-it-yourself credit protection approach
We've all seen the commercials. A guy mugging for the camera strums a guitar and sings about how he can't get a good job or a loan for a car or a house because he's a victim of identity theft. Or the one where the president of a fraud detection company gives out his Social Security number to prove that his company will keep your personal information safe.

These companies might deliver what they promise, but you can do much of what they do for yourself. And it won't cost a dime.

Deter

While nothing can guarantee that you won't become a victim of identity theft, you can minimize your risk and minimize the damage if a problem develops by making it more difficult for identity thieves to access your personal information.

• Don't carry your Social Security card in your wallet or write your Social Security number on a check. Give it out only when absolutely necessary.

• Always shred your charge receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, checks and bank statements, expired charge cards that you're discarding and credit offers you get in the mail. To opt out of receiving prescreened offers, call 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688).

• When choosing a password, avoid using easily available information such as your birth date, a series of consecutive numbers or a single word that would appear in a dictionary. Combine letters, numbers and special characters.

• Don't give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or on the Internet unless you've initiated the contact and are sure you know who you're dealing with.

• Protect your purse and wallet at all times. Carry only the identification information and the credit and debit cards that you'll actually need when you go out.

• Keep your personal information in a secure place at home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help or are having work done in your house.

Detect

Stay alert for the signs of identity theft, such as:

• Accounts you didn't open and debts on your accounts that you can't explain.

• Fraudulent or inaccurate information on your credit reports.

• Failing to receive bills or other mail.

• Receiving credit cards that you didn't apply for.

• Being denied credit or being offered less favorable credit terms for no apparent reason.

• Getting calls or letters from debt collectors or businesses about merchandise or services you didn't buy.

Many people don't know that their identity has been stolen until they're contacted by bill collection agencies for overdue debts they never incurred or until they're denied credit.

Keep an eye out for any suspicious activity by routinely monitoring your financial statements and your credit reports.

Defend

If you are a victim of identity theft, the first thing you should do is place a fraud alert on your credit reports and review your credit reports. Contact:

Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com [4]; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241

Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com [5]; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013

TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com [6]; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

Next, close those fraudulent accounts and notify the creditors. They should have a security or a fraud department that will instruct you on what to do.

Make sure you file a complaint with the FTC. The commission's Identity Theft Hotline is toll-free: 1-877-ID-THEFT (438-4338); TTY: 1-866-653-4261; or write Identity Theft Clearinghouse; Federal Trade Commission; 600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW; Washington, DC 20580.

Finally, have a fraud alert and credit freeze attached to your credit reports. These will make it much more difficult for someone to victimize you again.

Arlinda Smith Broady is business editor of the Savannah Morning News. She can be reached at 912 652-0314 or arlinda.broady@morris.com


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