Protect yourself from identity theft

Figures holding magnifying glass over credit report

Make it as difficult as possible for anyone to steal your identity.

It's a huge hassle when crooks run up big bills in your name.

A few years ago, a Better Business Bureau survey found the average victim spent $442 and 40 hours -- or the equivalent of an entire workweek -- straightening everything out.

You may be more vulnerable to identity theft than you think, according to the BBB:

With that in mind, here's a checklist on how to be a tougher target:

Smart move 1. Secure your Social Security number.

Carry a Social Security card only when it's needed, such as when you're applying for a job, dealing with a government agency or opening a new bank account. Otherwise, leave it at home; better yet, leave it in your safe deposit box.

Never give your Social Security number out over the phone.

Don't put Social Security numbers on checks.

Smart move 2. Secure your credit cards.

Carry only one or two credit cards at a time.

Print "ASK FOR PHOTO ID" on the signature line of your credit cards. You'll have to pull out a driver's license more often, but that makes it much harder for anyone else to steal and use them.

Have all the information needed to report a lost or stolen credit card readily available in a safe place. Make photocopies of the front and back of each card. Just make sure all of the numbers are legible, especially the emergency phone number, which is likely to be in the fine print.

If a credit card expires and you don't receive a replacement, call the credit card company.

Protect your ATM and computer passwords. If you can't remember them and must write them down, disguise them as phone numbers for mythical friends or relatives. But don't make it obvious. Listing phone numbers for Joe Password or Peter Pin won't really protect much.

While most receipts only reveal the last four or five digits, watch out for any that print the full number. Take special precautions to safeguard and destroy those receipts.

Cancel any credit cards not in use. Don't just cut up the cards. Call or write the company and tell them to close the account.

This could lower your credit score by reducing your total amount of available credit. The percentage of available credit you are not using is one of the 22 factors the formula measures. But it also reduces the amount someone can steal.

Watch for unauthorized charges on every bill. Make it easy to check whether a suspect expenditure is legit by saving all credit card receipts in a special envelope.

Notify every credit card company as soon as you move. Don't allow monthly statements or new credit cards to go to an old address.

Smart move 3. Better shred than read.

Buy a shredder and shred every document that contains any sort of information -- personal or financial -- that could help a thief "become you" long enough to run amok through your credit.

This includes all those credit card and mortgage refinancing offers. Get a crosscut shredder that cuts the paper two ways. They're more expensive, but they're worth it.

There are also shredders that will chop up plastic, such as credit cards and CDs.

Smart move 4. Use your computer more -- and more safely.

Since only 10% of identity theft is based on information stolen from computers, use your computer for financial transactions.

If your company offers automatic payroll deposit, sign up for it. Enroll for online bill payments, too. Have bank and credit cards statements sent to you by e-mail.

To make those transactions more secure, install a firewall as well as antivirus and spyware programs, and update them regularly.

Make sure your home wireless network is encrypted, otherwise your neighbors -- or anyone who parks a car in front of your home -- could access your network and hard drive from a laptop computer.

Don't respond to suspicious e-mails. Banks and credit cards don't send e-mails asking you to update or confirm information that they already have. When in doubt, phone the bank.

While it's not possible to "shred" your computer's hard drive, you can wipe it clean before selling or discarding it. Just hitting "delete" will not do the trick. The data are still there and relatively easy to get at. There are programs that will actually wipe your hard drive.

Deal with online merchants that have a privacy policy and look for the Better Business Online seal or the Trust-e symbol that shows that the seller has been independently audited.

Before charging purchases online, make sure you're on a secure site -- one that starts https instead of http -- or that the charges are handled in an encryption mode.

Smart move 5. Use snail mail carefully.

When paying a bill by mail or sending a credit card number on an order, drop it into an actual mailbox. Don't leave it for your letter carrier to pick up. Crooks steal mail out of mailboxes.

Smart move 6. Know your credit report.

Check your credit report for any credit activity or credit cards that are not yours. If you have five credit cards and your credit report lists eight, report the bogus cards right away.

You can get a free copy of your credit report every year from AnnualCreditReport.com. There are three major credit reporting agencies and they all carry pretty much the same information.

Stagger your free reports so that you can get one of them every four months. Or pay to subscribe to any or all three of the services so you can monitor your credit report whenever you want to.

The three main credit bureaus are:

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