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Identity Theft and the Internet

James H. Dimmitt -- If you become a victim of ID theft, knowing what immediate actions to take can help minimize the potential damage.

LexisNexis, a provider of personal and financial data, recently reported that the personal information of as many as 310,000 people nationwide may have been stolen. This figure is nearly 10 times higher than the original figure disclosed last month by the company.

ChoicePoint Inc., another consumer data collection service, stated 145,000 people in their database were possibly exposed to identity thieves earlier this year. At DSW Shoe Warehouse, officials acknowledged stolen credit information at 103 of its 175 stores nationwide. Hackers have also targeted databases at California State University, as well as the University of California, San Diego.

Many consumers now fear that using the Internet puts them at a higher risk of identity theft. However, surveys have shown that only 10 percent of known identity theft cases have resulted from online fraud. Dumpster diving along with phone scams account for far more ID theft than the Internet.

In fact, you can use the Internet to help protect yourself from this crime in three unique ways:

1) View your banking and credit accounts online.

Almost all banks and credit card companies have secure Web sites that allow you to view your statements and activity safely online. Secure sites are those that begin with https// or display a padlock icon on your computer screen.

NEVER access a financial site through a link embedded in an email message. Emails with links asking you to verify or re-register your personal information are a sure sign of "phishing," a scam to collect your name and other identifying information to steal your identity.

Instead, type the bank or creditor's Web site address into your browser. Check your accounts every two weeks. Verify that the credits and debits shown on the statements are valid.

Report any suspicious activity immediately to your bank or creditor.

2) Monitor your credit report.

The main reason for stealing your identity is to open new credit accounts to purchase good and services using your name and stolen identity.

Chances are that you won't know you're an ID theft victim until you're denied credit or you receive bills for accounts you never opened.

If an ID thief has opened accounts in your name, they are most likely to appear on your credit report. There are three major credit reporting agencies: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian.

New legislation allows you to obtain your credit report annually from all three of these agencies for free. This new program is being phased in gradually across the U.S. Check www.annualcreditreport.com to see when your state becomes active in this program.

3) Use credit monitoring services.

A variety of paid services are available that will monitor your credit reports for activity and alert you to any changes. As with any product or service, make sure you understand what you're getting before you buy.

You can enjoy a free 30-day trial of CreditCheck® monitoring service and get a free copy of your Experian credit report by visiting http://www.yourfreecreditreportnow.com.

This monitoring service checks your credit report daily to notify you about fraudulent activity, new inquiries, new accounts, late payments, and more so you can spot possible signs of identity theft. After the free 30-day trial, you will be billed $9.95 monthly unless you cancel the service.

If you become a victim of ID theft, your opportunity for loans, jobs, or even housing could be affected. Taking immediate action after being victimized can minimize the damage.

Here are some other helpful identity theft related sites:

-- www.consumer.gov/idtheft (US government ID theft Web site);
-- www.privacyrights.org/identity.htm (ID theft resources);
-- www.identitytheft.org (ID theft prevention and survival).

James H. Dimmitt is editor of To Your Credit, a weekly free newsletter to help you manage your personal finances. You can subscribe to his newsletter and also get a FREE copy of your credit report when you visit: www.yourfreecreditreportnow.com.

© 2005 James H. Dimmitt

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The views and opinions expressed in these articles do not necessarily reflect those of College Central Network, Inc. or its affiliates. Reference to any company, organization, product, or service does not constitute endorsement by College Central Network, Inc., its affiliates or associated companies. The information provided is not intended to replace the advice or guidance of your legal or medical professional.