Gerri Willis Commentary:
Top Tips by Gerri Willis Column archive
Privacy under attack
5 Tips: We'll help you keep an eye on your private information -- and out of the hands of thieves.
By Gerri Willis, CNNMoney.com contributing columnist

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) - Seems like everyone wants your private information these days. In today's Five Tips, we'll tell you who really needs to have it and how you can take control of your own data.

1. Watch your credit report

Keeping control of your credit info is not easy, and it's about to get harder. You can freeze your credit report in about 15 states right now. That means would-be thieves can't open new accounts under your name. Once your account is frozen, an agency can't give out any details about your credit report. But a new bill in Congress backed by credit agencies proposes to limit these freezes to fraud victims only.

2. Medicare info in trouble

Personal data collected by Medicare, Medicaid and other government programs is not adequately secure, according to a recent federal report. The Department of Health and Human Services, which tracks more than a billion Medicare claims plus medical research at the National Institutes of Health, has significant weakness when it comes to anti-virus software, control over computer passwords -- and employees who don't get background checks.

3. Be proactive

Let's be honest, there's only so much you can do in this digital age to protect your data. But there are some good pro-active moves you can make. For example, cut down on that junk mail that's sitting around with all your info on it.

To opt out of pre-approved credit offers call 1-888-5-OPTOUT, a number established by the three major credit bureaus. As for medical information, rip up or shred bills or insurance claims before throwing them in the trash (or recycling them). Ask for alternate ID numbers from health insurers and others who may use your Social Security Number.

4. Take the free route

It costs you nothing to put a fraud alert on your credit reports. This alert tells companies that they should call you to verify your identity whenever they check your credit report with the intention of opening an account in your name. So if someone is fraudulently trying to set up a cell phone account in your name, the creditor will call you first.

You can do this by calling the credit bureaus -- Equifax (800-525-6285), Experian (888-397-3742) and TransUnion (800-680-7289). You may want to give your cell-phone number so that creditors can reach you easily. The fraud alert is free and lasts 90 days. Putting an alert on your credit reports might delay the granting of instant credit, but it should not lower your credit score or prevent you from getting a loan.

Of course, this isn't a panacea. While the law requires creditors to respond to fraud alerts, there is no penalty if they don't. It's still up to you to be vigilant about checking your credit report for suspicious activity every few months. You can get your free credit report at www.annualcreditreport.com.

5. Don't buy into fear

The credit protection business is estimated to be a billion dollar industry. And companies profit from selling you services you may not even need. Credit monitoring and identity theft insurance can cost consumers hundreds of dollars and in most cases, it's just a waste of money. So unless you've been a victim of fraud, you'll do better bypassing these options.

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Gerri Willis is a personal finance editor for CNN Business News and the host for Open House. E-mail comments to 5tips@cnn.comTop of page

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Most stock quote data provided by BATS. Market indices are shown in real time, except for the DJIA, which is delayed by two minutes. All times are ET. Disclaimer.

Morningstar: © 2014 Morningstar, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Factset: FactSet Research Systems Inc. 2014. All rights reserved.

Chicago Mercantile Association: Certain market data is the property of Chicago Mercantile Exchange Inc. and its licensors. All rights reserved.

Dow Jones: The Dow Jones branded indices are proprietary to and are calculated, distributed and marketed by DJI Opco, a subsidiary of S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC and have been licensed for use to S&P Opco, LLC and CNN. Standard & Poor's and S&P are registered trademarks of Standard & Poor’s Financial Services LLC and Dow Jones is a registered trademark of Dow Jones Trademark Holdings LLC. All content of the Dow Jones branded indices © S&P Dow Jones Indices LLC 2014 and/or its affiliates.