Credit cards and lock and key
Fraud expert Sid Kirchheimer says the most basic ways to protect yourself from identity theft are well known: Check your credit history at least once a year with each of the major credit reporting bureaus. Shred with a cross-cut (or "confetti") shredder all incoming mail with any sensitive information: your name, address, account information, Social Security number and especially "convenience checks" and new credit card offers. Never carry your Social Security card or PIN codes in your wallet. Carefully read bank, credit card and even telephone statements each month. What else can you do to keep the identity wolves from your door?

Shield Your Fortune with a $2 Pen
All it takes to empty your bank account is a single signed check stolen from your unlocked mailbox and some acetone—the active ingredient in nail polish remover. (Conveniently for criminals, pure acetone is also available in the paint department of home improvement centers.)

Here's how the scam goes down: The crook steals mail likely to contain a signed check—envelopes addressed to the phone or electric company are easy pickings. He or she then removes your check, puts a piece of cellophane tape over the front and back of your signature, and places the check in a pan of acetone. This process—known as "check washing"—takes only about 30 minutes to rinse everything but the printer's ink from the check. Your tape-covered John Hancock and the printer-inked information, of course, remain intact. The check is then blow-dried and flattened in a book, the tape is carefully peeled away and voilà —a blank check signed by you, replete with your name, address and bank account information.

How to Protect Yourself
Buy yourself a safe pen. One type of ink—the kind in gel pens manufactured by Uni-ball—resists acetone or other chemicals used in check washing.
Write Four Digits for More Protection
Even when you fill them out with a wash-proof pen, your outbound checks may offer identity thieves another bit of primo booty: your complete account numbers for credit cards, mortgages or other loans, which are routinely written (at the payee's insistence) on signed checks.

How to Protect Yourself
Rather than obediently scribbling your entire account number on signed checks—often on the Memo or For line—list only certain digits, such as the last four numbers of your credit card account. Or write down no integers at all. Firms routinely ask you to note your entire account number, but there is no need to comply.
Keep 'Em Guessing with New Checks
If your current checks display your first name, order new ones showing only your initials. That's the advice of Mari J. Frank, a California attorney who became an identity-theft protection lawyer after being victimized herself. "That way, the fraudster won't know how you sign your name," notes Mari.

How to Protect Yourself
To further guard your privacy, keep phone numbers off your checks. If you must list one, make it your work number, not your home phone. Another good move: Get a Post Office Box number and use it (rather than a street address) as your mail-delivery point. Of course, never display on any check your Social Security or driver's license number. To prevent new checks from being stolen from your incoming mail, specify that the delivery be sent not to your home but to your bank (for later pickup there).

Finally, seek out check styles that offer security features, such as a special substrate that stains during check washing attempts.
Say Cheese
Stealing your identity isn't hard, but stealing your face is. Take advantage, therefore, of an option offered by certain credit card companies and retail stores that sponsor their own plastic: Your photo can be affixed to your credit card.

Avoid Casual Clues
You welcome trouble into your life when you use your birth date or your mother's maiden name as your clue password or PIN for bank and credit card accounts. Savvy identity thieves are adept at obtaining this information. They simply ferret out birth certificates and other public records online, then use the significant dates they find there to guess passwords until they succeed in cracking your account.

How to Protect Yourself
If a company asks for your maiden name or your mother's maiden name, reply that you want to use an alternative password to that. Alternatively, fabricate a maiden name or pick a bogus birthday—one that you can easily remember, of course.

Get more tips of Sid's tips on how to protect your credit.
Please note: This is general information and is not intended to be legal advice. You should consult with your own financial advisor before making any major financial decisions, including investments or changes to your portfolio, and a qualified legal professional before executing any legal documents or taking any legal action. Harpo Productions, Inc., OWN: Oprah Winfrey Network, Discovery Communications LLC and their affiliated companies and entities are not responsible for any losses, damages or claims that may result from your financial or legal decisions.


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