How to Protect Yourself from Identity Theft

Identity theft can ruin your family's financial history. Here's how scammers operate and how you can stop them.
Identity Theft Can Happen to Anyone

Moryt Milo is no stranger to identity theft. As editor for a newspaper in Campbell, California, near the Silicon Valley, she had written a number of stories about a rash of a new kind of theft in neighborhoods nearby. So when a local police officer called to say they had found a forgery kit in the trunk of a car -- a kit that included a check she had mailed to her son's school -- she could hardly believe she was a victim of this new crime.

"The thieves had taken that one check from my mailbox, and were able to change the amount from $17.50 to $1,750," she says. But beyond altering the amount, the thieves also had a wealth of information from that check -- the address, the bank's account and routing numbers, and the signature itself -- which they could have used to masquerade as Moryt, stealing her identity.

The United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in Washington, D.C., defines identity theft as the stealing of personal information in order to illegally get credit or medical care, or to hide from the law. In the past five years, the FTC estimates about 27.3 million Americans have been the victims of identity theft. Nobody's safe from this kind of theft -- not parents, not grandparents (adults over age 60 make up 11 percent of victims), and not even your children (who make up 2 percent of victims).

Identity theft is frightening, not just because victims don't realize what's happening, but because its effects are long-lasting. If a thief gets credit in someone else's name and runs up a lot of debt, it can take years to straighten the problem out. In that time, a victim's credit history may be damaged to the point that she could be refused financing for loans and mortgages, or have difficulty getting insurance. Older parents and family members could get bilked out of retirement savings. If a child's information is compromised, their financial and credit history could be harmed.

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