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The holiday season is prime time for identity theft. It’s no wonder: the mix of frenzied shopping, demanding kids, wall-to-wall crowds and a tidal wave of consumer marketing via phone, mail and the Internet create just the right environment of distraction and confusion for identity thieves. These crooks are just waiting for you to let your guard down, giving them the chance to take over your identity, steal your money and ruin your credit–causing costly damage to your quality of life in the process. Here’s what you need to do to help ensure that their schemes are thwarted:
1. Monitor and control your mail. Identity thieves count on doing their damage long before you notice that anything is awry. Open and review all incoming mail, especially bills and credit card offers, the day you receive it. This way you can catch any signs that your identity has been stolen or abused, such as credit-card purchases you don’t recall or bills for things you did not order, as soon as possible. You’ll also be tipped off when mail you are supposed to receive, including bills and credit card statements, arrive later than normal, or don’t arrive at all. Shred whatever you decide to toss before you discard it, especially if it contains credit application forms or personal information such as your bank account or social security numbers. (Every home should have at least one shredder; available for as little as $25 or less each, it is a very inexpensive insurance policy against identity theft, which can easily cost you a thousand times that price.) What ever you decide to keep, file away out of plain sight. Do not leave outgoing mail in your mailbox for the postal delivery person to pick up–would be identity thieves could steal it (or just copy information from it and put it back in your mailbox) before it is picked up by the postal service. Take outgoing mail directly to the post office. If you decide to drop it in a mailbox, make sure the box is not so stuffed that a thief could not reach in and grab whatever is near the top.
2. Write your checks out with “fraud-proof” pens. These are pens that are wash-proof, meaning that thieves who steal your checks won’t be able to wash off the ink and rewrite the check against your account. You should be able to get these pens at any major office supply store.
3. Watch out for “shoulder surfers.” These are people who stand behind you or near you, peeking over your shoulder to steal credit card numbers and other information. Department stores, malls and ATM locations crowded with shoppers are the equivalent of Disney World to identity thieves and pick pockets alike. Do I have to tell you to keep your purse, wallet and shopping bags closed (buckled, zipped, snapped), secured and close to you at all times? Remain aware and guard your personal space–don’t be afraid to tell people “Happy holidays–now back up off me!”