Start jogging. Save more, eat less. Quit smoking. Yeah, right! Well, here's a New Year's resolution that's not only as worthwhile as those, it could save you lots of money, time and worry -- and with no self-denial and no significant change in lifestyle.
The resolution: To maximize your protection against identity theft -- the No. 1 consumer fraud in the nation.
About a million Americans were victimized by identity theft last year, according to law enforcement officials and privacy advocates. The largest identity theft ring in U.S. history was busted in November -- it involved 30,000 victims and an estimated $2.7 million.
Identity theft can result in "temporary and sometimes permanent financial loss when wages are garnished, tax refunds are withheld, or liens are placed on victims' property as a result of someone else's criminal use of their identity," Howard Beales, director of the Federal Trade Commission's Bureau of Consumer Protection, told Congress last year.
Victims also report being denied employment, credit, loans and mortgages, government benefits, utilities and leases when credit reports and background checks show fraudulently incurred debts or wrongful criminal records.
According to the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the FTC, on average victims spend more than 175 hours and $1,000 to clear their names.
Here is a checklist of simple steps experts and victims recommend to help prevent identity theft and limit the damage if it happens to you. Clip out this column, check off each step as you complete it, then spit-shine that self-esteem for keeping one big resolution:
* Once a year -- starting now -- check your credit report from all three of the credit reporting agencies (see box). Look for inaccuracies, anything amiss. Confirm your records are up-to-date.
* Develop the habit of reading your account statements as they arrive -- bank, credit card, etc. Unauthorized credit-card charges are often the first red flag.
* Guard your Social Security number like the family jewels. Don't carry your card with you. Don't put your SSN or driver's license number (often the same digits) on your checks. Don't give your SSN to anyone unless absolutely necessary (tax forms, employment records, most banking, stock and property transactions). The SSN is the key criminals use to unlock your finances.
* Don't carry extra credit cards, your birth certificate or passport with you except when necessary. Reduce the number of credit cards you use to a minimum.
* Arrange the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine (except for the cash), copy both sides of each license, ATM and credit card, health insurance card, etc. (Don't forget to pick up the originals.) Keep copies in a safe place. If your wallet is lost or stolen, you will have the numbers to call immediately.
* Order new checks that use only your first initial with your last name. If a crook filches your checkbook, he won't know whether you sign your checks with just your initials or your first name -- but your bank knows. Arrange to pick up your new checks at the bank instead of having them mailed to you.
* If you didn't get a paper shredder for Christmas, get one now (crosscut shredders work best). This is not paranoid behavior. Destroy all mail, credit-card offers and papers you throw out that contain sensitive information. Identity thieves need only your name, address and SSN -- which they can find on trashed mail or on identification in your wallet.
* Consider telephone solicitors suspects. Never confirm or provide any personal information (not your date of birth, mother's maiden name, ATM pin numbers, not even your address!) unless you initiated the call.
* Put a lock on your mailbox. Send all outgoing mail from post office collection boxes, not an unsecured mailbox. Try not to let mail stay in your mailbox for long.
* Reduce the flood of preapproved credit card offers by removing your name from the marketing lists of the credit reporting bureaus. Call 888-5OPT OUT. (You will have to provide your SSN).
* Call your credit card companies, bank and phone company and ask to place passwords or extra security protection on your accounts.
* Never allow your credit card number to be written as an ID on your checks.
* Create passwords and PINs (personal identification numbers) that are unpredictable -- don't use the last four digits of your SSN, your birth date, middle name, etc. And remove all PINs and passwords from your wallet or purse.
* Stop leaving those ATM, gas pump and credit-card receipts behind. Never toss them in a public trash container.
* Order your Social Security Earnings and Benefits Statement once a year from the Social Security Administration (see box) to check for fraud.
* Keep your canceled checks in a safe place -- they reveal a lot of personal information could put you at risk for fraud.
* Update your virus protection software today and regularly hereafter, or whenever a new virus alert is announced. Viruses can introduce codes that cause your computer to send out files.
* Never download files sent by strangers or click on hyperlinks in e-mails from senders you don't know.
* Install a fire wall program -- especially if you have a high-speed Internet connection such as cable, DSL or T-1. The fire wall allows you to stop uninvited hackers from accessing your computer.
* Install an anti-spy program that searches and destroys spy software that infiltrates your computer from the Internet. Lavasoft's Ad-Aware (www.lavasoftusa.com) is free.
* Don't store financial information on your laptop computer. If you must, use a complex password. Don't use the automatic log-in and password feature. Laptops are often stolen for the information in them, not just the hardware.
* Keep a separate credit card with a lower limit exclusively for online transactions.
If you suspect you are a victim of identity fraud:
* Call the fraud divisions of the credit reporting agencies and place a "fraud alert" on your name and SSN. Any company or creditor then must contact you first to authorize new credit. Ask the credit reporting agencies to send you copies of your reports (identity theft victims get them free).
* File a police report in the jurisdiction where it was stolen. This proves to credit providers you were diligent. If you suspect the mail was used, notify your local postmaster.
* Notify your bank so that it will contact you if there's any unusual activity in your account. Change your PINs.
* Contact creditors who have opened fraudulent accounts or permitted access to your existing accounts. Tell them this is a case of ID theft and shut those accounts. Request copies of all applications and transactions on the accounts.
* Contact the FTC -- the national clearinghouse for complaints by victims of identity theft -- at 877-IDTheft. File its ID Theft Affidavit that alerts companies and organizations that may have fraudulent accounts opened in your name.
Got a consumer complaint? Question? E-mail details to firstname.lastname@example.org or write Don Oldenburg, The Washington Post, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071.