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Financial Fraud and Theft:
How To Protect
Yourself From Identity Theft

A big concern today is identity theft or "ID theft," which occurs when an individual learns someone's Social Security number (SSN), bank account information or other details that can be used to go on a buying or borrowing binge. While law enforcement agencies, financial industry regulators, financial institutions and other organizations are working together to prevent ID theft and other financial crimes, consumers need to take precautions.

Protect your Social Security number, bank account and credit card numbers, PINs (personal identification numbers), passwords and other personal information.Never provide this information in response to a phone call, a fax, a letter or an e-mail you've received — no matter how friendly or official the circumstances may appear.

Be especially careful with your SSN. Don't provide it to any business unless you're convinced it's necessary and the information will be protected.

Also be aware that friends, family members, roommates and workers who come into homes make up a large percentage of identity thieves. They often are in the best position to find and use confidential information.

Guard your mail, which may include a credit card or bank statement, an envelope containing a check, documents showing confidential information, or other items that a thief can steal from a mailbox.

Try to use a locked mailbox or other secure location for your incoming mail. Pick up your mail as soon as possible. And for outgoing mail containing a check or personal information, put it in a blue Postal Service mailbox, hand it to a mail carrier or take it to the post office instead of leaving it in your doorway or home mailbox.

Keep your financial trash "clean." Don't throw away old ATM or credit card receipts, bank statements, tax returns or other documents containing personal information without shredding them first. ID thieves pick through trash bins looking for trash they can turn into cash.

Use extra care with personal information on a computer or over the Internet. Never provide bank, credit card or other sensitive information when visiting a Web site that doesn't explain how your personal information would be protected, including its use of "encryption" to safely transmit and store data.

Be on guard against incoming e-mails claiming to be from a trusted source — perhaps a bank, another company you know or even a government agency — asking you to "update" or "confirm" personal information. "Reputable organizations won't contact you to verify account information online because they already have it," said Sandra Thompson, a Deputy Director of the FDIC's Division of Supervision and Consumer Protection.

If you get one of those fraudulent e-mails (they're called "phishing" scams), don't click on any links or attachments because doing so could activate some types of spyware or viruses.

Take other precautions with your personal computer. Examples: Install a free or low-cost "firewall" to stop intruders from gaining remote access to your PC. Download and frequently update security "patches" offered by your operating system and software vendors to correct weaknesses that a hacker might exploit. Use software that detects and blocks "spyware," which can record your keystrokes to obtain your credit card number and other personal information.

Before selling, donating or disposing of an old personal computer, use special software to completely erase files that contain financial records, tax returns and other personal information. "If you use someone else's computer, such as a computer provided by your school, do not put your Social Security number or other personal information onto the computer," added Thompson. "Even if you go back and delete what you typed in, your personal information will remain on the computer's hard-drive and may be retrieved by an identity thief."

Beware of offers that seem too good to be true. Con artists often pose as charities or business people offering jobs, rewards or other "opportunities." They hope that trusting souls will send cash or checks, provide SSNs or credit card numbers, or wire money from a bank account.

Be extremely suspicious of any offer that involves "easy money" or "quick fixes." Be careful if you're being pressured to make a quick decision and you're asked to send money or provide bank account information before you receive anything in return. Also beware of any transaction for which you receive a cashier's check made out for more money than the amount due to you with a request to wire back the difference — you could lose a lot of money if the check is fraudulent.

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