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Avoiding Identity Theft: A Primer

Compiled by David McGuire
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 15, 2004; 11:20 AM

Your identity is arguably your most valuable possession. A clean legal record and credit history open the door for work, mortgage loans and other day-to-day privileges that most people take for granted.

Stains on those records can take years to erase, but most people pay more attention to securing their car than protecting personal data. That's why identity theft last year struck 9.9 million Americans, costing businesses and individuals $53 billion, according to a survey commissioned by the Federal Trade Commission.

Identity thieves are a lot like car thieves, experts say: If they want your information badly enough, they'll probably get it. But taking a few simple precautions can make you a much less attractive target.

Simple Steps for Protecting Your Identity

Phishing: Don't Take the Bait: The latest ploy of ID thieves is to send consumers official-looking e-mail messages that appear to come from companies you've done business with. The e-mail messages request passwords and other personal data. The practice -- called "phishing" -- can dupe even savvy consumers. When in doubt, verify by phone or through the company's Web site that the e-mail is real.

Buy a Shredder: This is one of the easiest ways to guard against "Dumpster diving," says Naomi Lefkovitz, an attorney for the FTC's identity theft program. Identity thieves prowl public dumps and big trash bins looking for sensitive documents like credit card statements. Many of those papers contain all the information a thief needs to hijack your identity.

Get Your Credit Report: It's always a good time to get copies of your credit report from the three major credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. It won't protect you from theft, but it will let you spot suspicious activity taking place in your name. They normally charge around $10 for a copy, and consumers are encouraged obtain reports from all three bureaus; some deals offer reports from all three bureaus for a single price.

Protect Your Social Security Number: The Social Security number has become a de facto customer ID, but most of the time you don't have to give it away. SSNs are like spun gold to identity thieves. The FTC's Lefkovitz advises consumers to ask companies that request an SSN why they need it. Retail stores, utility companies and insurers are among the sorts of companies that probably don't need your Social Security number -- even if they ask for it. The law doesn't prevent them from asking, but many will back down if you insist on keeping your number private.

Make Sure Your SSN Isn't on Your Driver's License: State motor vehicle departments are required to collect Social Security numbers before they dole out driver's licenses or ID cards, but states are not required to display the number on license cards. In most states you can ask to be issued a unique driver's license number. A new Virginia law bans the practice of using Social Security numbers on licenses or ID cards. Maryland licenses don't use SSNs, and District resident are issued a random driver's license number unless they request otherwise.

Keep Your Mother's Maiden Name Between You and Her: When a company asks for your mother's maiden name, what they really want is a password that only you know. Since your mother's maiden name is easily discovered, consider a different password.

Talk to Your Boss: Some of the biggest sources of personal data are companies that fail to destroy sensitive documents or leave their computer systems unprotected. Ask your boss or human resources contact how they protect your information. Some states have laws requiring safe disposal of employee documents.

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