Our Terms of Service and Privacy Policy have changed.

By continuing to use this site, you are agreeing to the new Privacy Policy and Terms of Service.

Don't get scammed by ID thieves

Identity theft is on the rise. Here's how to avoid becoming the next victim.

EMAIL  |   PRINT  |   SHARE  |   RSS
google my aol my msn my yahoo! netvibes
Paste this link into your favorite RSS desktop reader
See all CNNMoney.com RSS FEEDS (close)
By Jessica Dickler, CNNMoney.com staff writer

When do you plan to retire?
  • Before age 65
  • At age 65
  • After 65
  • Never
CDs & Money Market
MMA 0.28%
$10K MMA 0.25%
6 month CD 0.38%
1 yr CD 0.62%
5 yr CD 1.30%

Find personalized rates:

Rates provided by Bankrate.com.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- There's a reason consumers are worried about protecting their credit- and debit-card information.

The feds said Monday that one alleged master scammer stole data involving more than 130 million credit cards. In fact, Albert Gonzalez may be responsible for the largest case of identity theft on record, according to federal prosecutors.

Meanwhile, other hackers are working their way into the computer systems of major retailers across the country, experts say.

As the bad guys get savvier, identity theft has become more common. Last year, the number of incidents of identity fraud in the United States increased 22% over 2007, according to the most recent survey by Javelin Strategy & Research.

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your information to open credit cards or bank accounts, write bad checks or take out loans. Victims can be left with countless charges, years of bad credit and endless aggravation.

Some 10 million Americans were victimized in 2008, up from 8.1 million in 2007, Javelin said.

"Let's face it, these scammers are extremely intelligent people," said Bill Hardekopf, CEO of LowCards.com and author of "The Credit Card Guidebook." But, "there are certain things that you can do to protect yourself."

Stop identify theft before it starts

What can you do to keep it from happening to you?

The most effective weapon against identity theft is to safeguard your personal information: birth date, Social Security number and credit card numbers.

Shredding your mail, using unpredictable passwords and secure networks, keeping careful tabs on your bank statements and monthly bills and monitoring your credit report regularly are the best ways to prevent identity theft.

"The key word vigilance," said Linda Foley, founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

Consumers are entitled to one free credit report a year from each of the three credit bureaus -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Hardekopf recommends staggering the reports so you'll get one every four months.

To get your report, go to annualcreditreport.com -- the official site set up by the three credit bureaus to comply with federal law.

The three major agencies each offer ID protection services for about $15 a month as well. That includes monitoring your credit report and notifying you of any changes plus a few fancy extras.

Equifax's ID Patrol searches suspected underground Internet trading sites for your personal information and includes identity theft insurance up to $1 million with no deductible.

Other credit monitoring services are available from your bank. Bank of America's Privacy Assist service costs $12.99 a month for unlimited credit checks. For $9.99 a month, Chase's Identity Protection will also reimburse up to $100,000 of identity fraud expenses.

But keep in mind, most services can only warn or insure you against ID theft after the fact. Monitoring services can only throw up red flags at the first sign of trouble and help limit losses, which Foley says is "reactive, not proactive."

Even after paying for credit monitoring and insurance, experts agree that no identity theft prevention service is foolproof.

"As a consumer there is only so much you can do," Foley said. "But you can lower your risk somewhat." To top of page

They're hiring!These Fortune 100 employers have at least 350 openings each. What are they looking for in a new hire? More
If the Fortune 500 were a country...It would be the world's second-biggest economy. See how big companies' sales stack up against GDP over the past decade. More
Sponsored By:
More Galleries
Top luxurious hotel suites for business travelers For many people, you can't put a price on comfort. More
Million-dollar startups: These firms scored big sales their first year Their first year in business, these companies generated $1 million in sales. More
The 10 best states for retirees It might be worth moving to a new place to find your dream retirement home. Check out these 10 states. More
Worry about the hackers you don't know 
Crime syndicates and government organizations pose a much greater cyber threat than renegade hacker groups like Anonymous. Play
GE CEO: Bringing jobs back to the U.S. 
Jeff Immelt says the U.S. is a cost competitive market for advanced manufacturing and that GE is bringing jobs back from Mexico. Play
Hamster wheel and wedgie-powered transit 
Red Bull Creation challenges hackers and engineers to invent new modes of transportation. Play