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Thirteen Ways to Avoid Identity Theft

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If it happened to the Bernankes, it could happen to you!

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When asked why he robbed banks, Willie Sutton famously replied, "Because that's where the money is."

Contemporary crooks with half a brain give Sutton's brilliant insight a digital age twist and use identity theft to take over existing accounts, create new accounts in the victim's name, and even secure fraudulent loans. The reason is simple: It's easy and, if caught, the penalty is a lot less than using a gun to rob a bank.

The Federal Trade Commission estimates that 9 million Americans have their identity stolen each year. The losses total billions of dollars each year, but the financial institutions generally take the hit and victims are rarely liable if the fraudulent debt run up in their name is reported quickly. However, consumers pay for the crime through higher fees – and an estimated 200 million hours spent each year trying to set the record straight and recover from identity theft.

"Monitor your credit report," says Robert Siciliano, CEO of IDTheftSecurity.com in Boston. "If your identity is stolen, one of the first things the thieves will do is open an unauthorized charge account in your name. I recommend reviewing your credit report quarterly – or at least annually. Consider investing in a credit monitoring service – it's about $10 a month."

No one is immune from identity theft -- even Ben Bernanke, chairman of the Federal Reserve. Thieves wrote checks against his personal account after his wife's purse was stolen at a Starbucks in Washington. Policy say the theft appears to be part of a large, sophisticated ring.

Here are some basic steps you can take to prevent identity theft or detect it early and limit the damage:

1) Order copies of your credit report from the national credit bureaus at least once a year and review them closely for fraudulent activity. Federal law requires the three major credit bureaus to provide consumers with one free copy of their report each year. To download and print a copy of your report from Equifax, TransUnion and Experian, go to www.annualcreditreport.com, the authorized Web site for free reports. (See: How To Read a Credit Report and How To Fix Your Credit.)

2) Close unused bank or credit card accounts.

3) Go to DMAchoice.org, a web site run by the Direct Marketing Association, to remove your name from mailing lists of pre-approved credit cards. Thieves can easily steal the envelopes from your mailbox, open an account in your name and run up a huge bill.
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