Tips to protect your identity

By Jennie Bragg, producer


NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- Identity theft is the number one complaint by consumers to the Federal Trade Commission and has been for the past five years.

The average victim loses about $1,800 in goods and services and will spend around 30 hours and $370 to repair the damage done to their credit record.

Here's what you need to do to make sure you are not the next victim:

Invest in a shredder

Shred anything and everything that has your name and address on it.

ID theft often starts with stolen mail, lost or stolen wallets, or leaving your name and address on documents that you toss out at work.

Identity thieves love the recycling bin, and they aren't afraid to dumpster dive.

With that in mind, shred invoices, receipts, pre-approved credit card offers, credit card checks and the envelopes they came in.

Protect yourself online

Information that you store on your computer or in an online account can be a little bit trickier.

Be sure to encrypt any e-mails or files on your computer that may contain personal information, and always use a firewall and anti-spyware on a home computer.

It is also important to be wary of what you post on social networking sites.

"If we say that we're going on vacation and we'll be gone for a week, you might as well put a neon sign in front of your house saying come on in, take everything, help yourself to what's mine," says Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling.

"You have to be careful with your entire family. Educate them. Even the children may unwittingly put information online that compromises the entire family. And the crooks love this because it's perfectly legal for them to search social media websites and find information about you."

Check your credit report

Review your credit reports often for any suspicious activity.

Head to annualcreditreport.com to get a free credit report twice a year from each of the three reporting agencies.

"Be a savvy consumer and watch for identity theft," suggests Gail Cunningham. "Review your report, check for any new accounts that have been opened or certainly charges made to your existing account."

If suspicious charges have been made on one of your accounts, be sure to stay on top of the matter until it has been resolved.

If you are a victim

If you think you have been a victim of identity theft, call your creditors immediately and shut down the accounts in question.

"Consider putting a fraud or freeze alert on your account," suggests Cunningham. "Contact the credit bureaus and file a police report. You may need that police report to legitimatize the theft and get any information removed permanently from your credit report."

To file an identity theft complaint to the Federal Trade Commission, head to ftccomplaintassistant.gov or call the identity theft hotline at (877) 438-4338.

Talkback: What steps have you taken to protect your identity? To top of page

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