11 Ways To Prevent Identity Theft

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Protect your finances, credit with safeguards from Bills.com

Some people begin to realize what happened when their credit card is declined or a check unexpectedly bounces. Some receive a confusing bill from a medical provider. A lucky few get a call from their credit card company asking if a specific transaction is valid.

The culprit? Identity theft.

"Identity theft can destroy your credit and cost thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours to correct," said Ethan Ewing, president of free online consumer portal Bills.com. "A thief might use your bank account numbers, Social Security number, address, birth date and credit card information to make large purchases, open bank accounts, rent an apartment or pay for health care. The thief might be a stranger or a friend or relative."

Up to 9 million Americans experience identity theft every year, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Protect yourself with these tips:

1.    Protect Social Security numbers. Do not carry Social Security (SS) numbers or cards. Many companies routinely ask for SS numbers as customer identifiers. Politely refuse to provide the number. Students should ask that their college or university -- and student loan lenders -- issue a unique account number rather than using the SS number as an identifier. If a health insurance card contains the SS number, make a copy and black out the first five digits; carry that copy. Do not provide an SS number on a resume or job application; provide the number after being hired.

2.    Keep driver's license numbers private. Thieves can use driver's license numbers as alternate identifiers, and they provide a way to access financial accounts. Keep your driver's license number safe. Do not write it on paperwork.

3.    Guard mail. If possible, have mail delivered to a locked mailbox. Drop mail in an official mailbox, rather than leaving it in an unlocked home mailbox for carrier pickup. Thieves steal outgoing mail to obtain account numbers.

4.    Shred private information. Shred any paperwork or electronic media that contains private information. This includes bills, account statements and credit card offers, as well as medical information, tax information, job-related paperwork, etc.

5.    Use caution online. Be sure a Web site uses security measures (indicated by the secure symbol in the lower right-hand corner of your screen and language about security measures, such as virus/hacker scans and secure transaction protections) before making online purchases. If in doubt, withhold credit card or other private information. Be concerned about even secure businesses: In 2008, the Identity Theft Resource Center reports, companies had 646 data breaches (loss of data security) -- an increase of 47 percent over 2007 numbers.

6.    Be wary on the phone. Never give out private information in a phone call you did not initiate. The caller might be impersonating a trusted business. If in doubt, ask the caller to mail or e-mail information so you can make a purchase or contribution decision at your convenience.

7.    Get smart about scams. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Be wary of offers to refinance your home or obtain a credit card with no SS number, no job or no credit. Never respond to e-mails touting huge international lottery prizes or a need for help transferring millions of dollars. Simply delete the messages -- scammers are at best thieves and at worst kidnappers seeking to blackmail you into paying them.

8.    Pay attention to bills. If you miss a bill that you regularly receive, call the company immediately. One identity theft method is to complete a change of address form. Then the thief can use the bill as identification.

9.    Consider online billing. Financial institutions are among the most secure online. Many people believe e-billing (receiving statements via e-mail) can prevent identity theft by eliminating the paper trail. Be sure the company is reliable and your e-mail address is secure.

10.    Check your credit report. Check your credit report at least once a year, preferably quarterly. Each individual is entitled to one free credit report annually. Visit the Web sites of the three major credit reporting agencies (Equifax, Experian and TransUnion) or http://www.annualcreditreport.com or call to request the report. If the report includes items that are inaccurate, request the report be corrected. If you find fraudulent activity, contact the Federal Trade Commission (http://www.ftc.gov) to learn what to do.

11.    Watch children's credit. Identity thieves love to steal children's credit information. It can take years to realize something is wrong. Parents should watch for unsolicited credit card offers, bank statements for an account the parent did not open, and the like.

"Your personal information is even more valuable than the cash in your wallet because it can be used to steal away part of your life," Ewing said. "Guard it carefully to protect your future."

About Bills.com (http://www.bills.com)
Based in San Mateo, Calif., Bills.com is a free one-stop portal where consumers can educate themselves about complex personal finance issues and comparison shop for products and services including credit cards, debt relief assistance, insurance, mortgages and other loans. As the online portal to Freedom Financial Network, LLC, the company has served more than 50,000 customers nationwide since 2002 while managing more than $1 billion in consumer debt. Its RSS feed is available at http://www.bills.com/news_releases/.

Bills.com holds the No. 257 spot on the Inc. 500 list for 2008, and the No. 3 spot on Entrepreneur Magazine's Hot 100 list of the fastest-growing U.S. companies. Company co-founders and co-CEOs Andrew Housser and Brad Stroh were named to the Silicon Valley/San Jose Business Journal's "40 Under 40" list in 2008, and were recipients of the Northern California Ernst & Young 2008 Entrepreneur of the Year Award.

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Aimee Bennett

Ethan Ewing
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