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No one expects it to happen. You're careful with financial information, so how could someone steal your identity? The truth is, identity theft requires very little information -- just a name, Social Security number and birth date. Armed with a few facts, thieves can apply for a credit card, obtain a loan, purchase a car or look for a job -- all in your name.

A Red Flag

If you notice that the volume of mail you receive at home suddenly stops, that could be a red flag that someone is hijacking your identity.

The U.S. Department of Justice warns that identity thieves sometimes file postal "change of address" cards on their intended victims. They divert mail to a post office box where they can have private access to credit card bills and other information without fear of being observed. It also buys thieves time, since the victims won't see evidence of fraudulent charges and new credit accounts appearing in their mailbox.

If your mail stops coming, check with your local post office immediately.

Where do thieves get financial information? Here are some common tactics:

  • Many people have their checks printed with their Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers and birth dates. Anyone who sees the checks has access to the information.
  • Stealing mail or looking through trash may result in finding material with a Social Security number on it.
  • A call to a credit bureau, posing as a prospective landlord, employer or lender, can yield information.
  • Computer-literate thieves also obtain information over the Internet.

If you become a victim, you typically don't have to pay for anything charged by an identity thief. But you have to restore your credit and ensure all fraudulent accounts are closed. That can be time consuming and expensive. If you think your identity has been stolen, inform the three major credit bureaus so a fraud alert can be placed on your account. That way, no new credit will be issued without first contacting you.

Also file a report with the police in case a creditor wants proof of the crime. And file the Federal Trade Commission's ID Theft Affidavit, which advises many companies and organizations about the theft.

To Help Guard Against Identity Theft, Follow These Four Steps:

1. Protect your Social Security number. Only give it out when it is absolutely required, such as on tax forms, employment records and for bank, investment and property transactions. Request a personal identification number for phone access to financial information. Don't print your Social Security number on checks.

2. Check your credit report annually. The Fair Credit Reporting Act requires each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months. For more information, go to or visit the FTC website by clicking here.

You are also entitled to a free copy if a company takes adverse action against you, such as denying your application for credit, insurance or employment, and you ask for your report within 60 days of receiving notice of the action.

Review your report carefully for errors. It is not uncommon to find information on people with similar names or other family members in your credit file.

If you find errors, notify the credit bureau immediately in writing. They must investigate the items and clear up those that can't be verified. If the matter is not resolved to your satisfaction, you can submit a "statement of dispute" explaining your position, which must be included in your file.

3. Destroy important financial records. When discarding old tax returns, bank statements, brokerage statements and other financial documents, use a shredder.

4. Remove yourself from mailing lists. Pre-approved credit card offers are an easy way for thieves to obtain cards quickly. Credit bureaus frequently sell lists to companies making these offers. Call the credit agencies and request your name be removed from these lists.

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