How to Avoid Identity Theft

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Here's the scary thing about the identity-theft ring that the feds cracked last week: there was nothing any of its estimated 40,000 victims could have done to prevent it from happening. This was an inside job, according to court documents. A lowly help-desk worker at Teledata Communications, a software firm that helps banks access credit reports online, allegedly stole passwords for those reports and sold them to a group of 20 thieves at $60 a pop. That allowed the gang to cherry-pick consumers with good credit and apply for all kinds of accounts in their names. Cost to the victims: $3 million and rising.

Even scarier is that this, the largest identity-theft bust to date, is just a drop in the bit bucket. More than 700,000 Americans have their credit hijacked every year. It's one of crime's biggest growth markets. A name, address and Social Security number — which can often be found on the Web — is all anybody needs to apply for a bogus line of credit. Credit companies make $1.3 trillion annually and lose less than 2% of that revenue to fraud, so there's little financial incentive for them to make the application process more secure. As it stands now, it's up to you to protect your identity.

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The good news is that there are plenty of steps you can take. Most credit thieves are opportunists, not well-organized gangs. A lot of them go dumpster diving for those millions of "pre-approved" credit-card mailings that go out every day. Others steal wallets and return them, taking only a Social Security number. Shredding your junk mail and leaving your Social Security card at home can save a lot of agony later.

But the most effective way to keep your identity clean is to check your credit reports once or twice a year. There are three major credit-report outfits: Equifax (at, Trans-Union ( and Experian ( All allow you to order reports online, which is a lot better than wading through voice-mail hell on their 800 lines. Of the three, I found TransUnion's website to be the cheapest and most comprehensive — laying out state-by-state prices, rights and tips for consumers in easy-to-read fashion.

If you're lucky enough to live in Colorado, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey or Vermont, you are entitled to one free report a year by law. Otherwise it's going to cost $8 to $14 each time. Avoid services that offer to monitor your reports year-round for about $70; that's $10 more than the going rate among thieves.

If you think you're a victim of identity theft, you can ask for fraud alerts to be put on file at each of the three credit-report companies. You can also download a theft-report form at, which, along with a local police report, should help when irate creditors come knocking. Just don't expect justice. That audacious help-desk worker was one of the fewer than 2% of identity thieves who are ever caught.

Questions? You can e-mail Chris at