"Identity theft" sounds like a movie title, but it is a real-life horror story for hundreds of thousands of people every year.
Identity theft occurs when someone fraudulently uses your personal information - your social security number, driver's license number, birth date, etc. - to apply for credit, services, or benefits using your name. Lawsuits, garnished wages, and tax liens can result. To make matters worse, because the theft is "invisible," you may not discover it quickly.
How can you protect yourself? Here are some practical steps you can take.
Watch the numbers. Store your social security card in a safe place. Don't print your social security number on your checks, and refrain from using it as a password on your financial or Internet accounts. If you are required to provide your social security number, find out how it will be used and how it will be protected.
Keep your data confidential. Give out your birth date only when absolutely necessary. Leave off either the day or the year, if possible.
Prevent your account numbers from falling into the wrong hands by shredding documents rather than simply discarding them. Shred all discarded mail that contains personal information, such as pre-approved credit offers.
Monitor your credit. Check your monthly bills to make sure all charges are legitimate. Investigate unusual items immediately.
Consider lowering the limit on your credit cards to reduce the extent of fraudulent activity if a card is stolen or lost. Cancel cards you no longer use.
Order a credit report at least annually. Check it for errors and notify the credit bureau if you find any.