How to maintain the real you, eight must-read tips

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Defending Yourself Against Identity Theft

Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in our society today. And no, I haven't been watching too many crime shows.

So how can you protect yourself? These 8 simple tips will get you on your way to protection.

1. Pull the credit reports of all family members every year. Through federal law, you are entitled to your report for free once a year. (Use the site Even minor children are at risk, so confirm there are no records claiming they have debts.

2. Because companies are not required to report your current standing every month, credit reports are often not up to date. But if the amount is very wrong ““ and well over 6 months behind ““ check into why.

3. If you find debts that do not belong to you, it is possible someone is using your identity. Investigate immediately. Even if you've never received any mysterious bills or phone calls don't wait until you do.

4. Close open accounts that have a zero balance. This helps prevent fraud, as well as keeping temptation at bay.

5. Buy identity theft protection for your whole family. Just like home or auto insurance, identity theft protection companies absorb the hit if you are victimized. In addition, they deal with the overwhelming paperwork and the time-consuming process of restoring your good name. They will even investigate suspected theft on your behalf.

6. Protect personal information. Never give your social security number or birth date over the phone unless you initiated the call to the company. Carefully scrutinize all incoming mail both postal and email ““ before filling out any form that asks for sensitive information. If you are suspicious of a mailing, contact the company before replying. Do this by looking up the contact information via the web. Do not simply use the information on the mailing. If it is fraudulent, calling the crooks won't reveal that.

7. Never carry your social security card on you. If your purse or wallet is lost or stolen, you've just given a potential thief everything they need to become a phantom you.

8. Place a fraud alert on yourself. You can request that your social security number be placed on fraud alert, meaning that any new kind of credit is much harder to open. Stricter protocols are followed to confirm you are the one acquiring a new debt. This makes stealing your identity difficult.

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