THE HELP DESK The Help Desk: Top Tips

Think ID theft can't happen to you?

Not even the Fed chairman is immune. Ben Bernanke's wife was a target in an identity theft scheme that preyed on 500 people. Here are some steps you can take to protect yourself.

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By Gerri Willis, CNN personal finance editor

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For more information on managing your largest investment, check out Gerri Willis' 'Home Rich,' now in bookstores.

NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- We learned yesterday that the Fed Chief's wife Anna had her handbag stolen at a Starbucks in Washington, D.C. Her checkbook, driver's license, four credit cards and a small amount of cash were in her bag.

The thieves -- part of a ring that victimized hundreds of people -- wrote checks on the Bernanke account. As a result, the couple had to take steps against identity theft. And while the Bernanke experience was pretty old-school -- a real-world crime, identity theft also occurs in the virtual world. Consumers are best advised to protect themselves both online and in their day-to-day activities.

1. Protect yourself

First, there's very little that you can do really to completely eliminate the threat of identity theft. It's a multibillion dollar business after all. Last year about 9.9 million people were hit according to research by Javelin Strategy.

But you can help to reduce your chances of having your identity stolen. First, buy a shredder. Shred all your important papers and especially pre-approved credit applications received in your name and other financial information that provides access to your private information. I shred anything with my address on it, plus any credit card offers and any financial statements.

Next, reduce the amount of mail you get. Arrange to view your bills, your monthly bank statements, your credit card statements online. But be very leery of conducting your financial transactions using public access WiFi, its easier for scamsters to access your password.

And finally, protect your Social Security number. Don't even carry it on you. If a business requests your social security number, give them an alternate number, such as a driver's license number.

2. Report the crime

The first thing you should do is call one of the three major credit bureaus and file a fraud report. When you file with one of these bureaus, it will alert the other two companies. Then you can get one free copy of your credit report from each of the three companies.

Document everything says Adam Levin of Identity Theft 911. Check the reports carefully, and if you find any suspicious information or activity, immediately alert the credit bureau and the company that holds the suspicious account. Plus, make sure to file a police report. This will get it on record and possibly help in catching your thief.

Unfortunately, the simple fact is that identity theft can take months, if not years to fix, and it's an incredibly time-consuming process. But be wary of companies offering to help you fix your credit after identity theft.

Even if they're legitimate, it's best to handle this yourself. Finally, keep on top of your credit card and your banking account information online says Levin. It's a low cost way to keep on top of your accounts.

-- CNN's Jen Haley contributed to this article.

Got a financial dilemma? Go to CNNMoney.com/helpdesk to submit questions, read the Help Desk articles and check out new Help Desk videos. And tune in to CNN's Newsroom Tuesdays and Fridays, when Gerri Willis and other experts answer your questions.

Talkback: Have you even been a victim of ID theft? Tell us what you did about it and share your comments below. To top of page

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