By Lindenberg Junior | English Edition: Ann Fain

Our personal financial information is more easily available and far less private in the computer age than it was in the days of old-fashioned filling cabinets. We talk on the phone and tap on keyboards (compliments of our high tech world), which can create much more damage than screen door shears and glasscutters.

Unfortunately, this has resulted in an increase in privacy abuses and credit frauds. Information about us is gathered and disseminated with or without our knowledge. Computers, networks and the internet have increased the amount of personal information about us that resides in far-flung databases. Today, for unscrupulous people it has become easier than ever to make anyone an unwitting victim.

8 Things Anyone Can Find Out About You

1. Any criminal convictions (from court records)

2. Your current and previous address (from the U.S postal service and credit bureaus)

3. Whether you have filed for bankruptcy or had liens placed against your property (from court records)

4. Whether there s a warrant out for your arrest (from court records and police agencies)

5. Whether you have a professional license (from licensing agencies)

6. If you ve had speeding tickets, drunken driving convictions or other black marks on your driving records (from the driver license bureaus)

7. What cars, boats and planes you own (from state motor vehicle records)

8. What pieces of real state you own and how much you paid (from county tax records)

For a criminal, identity theft is a low-risk crime with a potentially high payoff. Millions of Americans and residents of the U.S become victims of this crime every year despite the measures they may take to protect themselves. Identity thieves can even commit a crime in someone else s name, leaving the innocent and unsuspecting victim saddled with a criminal record. Cleaning up the mess is a time-consuming task for the victims who many end up taking days or even weeks off work to make necessary phone calls, send letters and/or have affidavits notarized.

Attorney’s Advice

1. The next time you order checks have only the initial of your first name and your last name printed on your checks. If someone takes your checkbook, they will not know if you sign your checks with just the initial of your first name or with your entire first name, but your bank will know how you sign your checks.

2. Do not sign the back of your credit cards. Instead, put “Photo ID required”.

3. When you are writing checks to pay on your credit card accounts, DO NOT put the complete account number on the “For” line. Instead, just put the last four numbers. The credit card company knows the rest of the number, and anyone who might be handling your check as it passes through all the check-processing channels will not have access to it.

4. Put your work phone number on your checks instead of your home phone. If you have a PO Box, use that instead of your home address. If you do not have a PO Box, use your work address. And NEVER have your Social Security number printed on your checks.

5. Place the contents of your wallet on a photocopy machine and copy both sides of your driver s license, credit cards, etc. This way you will know what you had in your wallet and all of the account numbers and phone numbers to call and cancel. Keep the photocopy in a safe place. Also carry a photocopy of your passport when traveling either here or abroad.

6. When you check out of a hotel that uses cards for keys (and they all seem to do that now), do not turn the “keys” in. Take them with you and destroy them. Those little cards have all of the information on them that you gave the hotel, including your address and credit card number with expiration date. Someone with a card reader, or employee of the hotel, can access all that information with no problem whatsoever.

7. Review your credit report at least at once a year. Make sure that no unauthorized accounts have been opened and that no changes have been made to your existing accounts. You can obtain one free report per year from each credit-reporting agency (listed later in this article).

8. Never respond to a request from a company asking to verify your account information by e-mail. Make sure your virus checker and firewalls are up and updated and put in an autoupdated mode so that you don t have to worry about it. Also, load an anti-spyware program on your computer, but make sure it comes from a legitimate company. In addition, make sure to password-protect information devices such as laptops or Palm Pilots and create a second disposable email address such as an account from free email services – for sweepstake entries and others offers.

Here is some critical information to limit the damage in case this happens to you:

A. Cancel credit cards immediately and/or close accounts that you believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently. The key is having the toll free numbers and your card numbers handy so you know whom to call. Keep those where you can find them. B. File a police report immediately in the jurisdiction where your credit cards, etc., were stolen. This proves†to credit providers you were diligent, and this is a first step toward an†investigation (if there ever is one).

C. Call the three national credit-reporting organizations immediately to place a fraud alert on your name and Social Security number.
They are:
Equifax: 1-800-525-6285
Experian (formerly TRW):1-888-397-3742
TransUnion:1-800-680-7289.

The alert means any company that checks your credit knows your information was stolen and they have to contact you by phone to authorize a new credit or bank card.

D. Call the FTC at 877-ID-THEFT. A counselor will take your complaint and advise you on how to deal with any resulting credit-related problems.

E. Review Identity Crisis: What To Do if Your Identity Is Stolen, available from the FTC at 877-theft or by logging on to their website at www.consumer.gov/idtheft.

Do You Need Identity Theft Insurance?

Some insurance and credit card companies are charging from $30 to $100 for ID theft insurance. Many people do  not need it because they are alert and keep track of their credit report. But if you are the kind of person who is “always busy”, it should be a good idea (but not a “must”). The services are designed to alert you to certain account activity and to restore any resulting damage to your credit history.

Experts estimate that the typical identity theft victim will spend, on average, $1,500 in out-of-pocket expenses and countless hours in their efforts to resolve the many problems caused by this growing epidemic. As example,in the year 2005 alone it has cost shoppers and merchants about $300 billion and hit almost 10 million new victims. For the Social Security Administration (Fraud Line): 1-800-269-0271.

The most important alternative is www.AnnualCreditReport.com, the government-sponsored site where we all can get a free copy of each of our three major credit reports every 12 months.