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Start guarding identity better

Updated: May 3, 2013 12:14PM

Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in America. According to the FBI, an estimated 10 million Americans are victims of identity theft each year, costing an incredible $50 billion, either to the individual, the creditors or financial institutions -- and ultimately to the consumer who bears the burden of these losses in higher prices for goods and services.

We're No. 10

Here in Illinois, the Federal Trade Commission says that more than 11,000 people reported they were victims of ID theft in 2005 -- and the FTC says that more than half the people who are victimized do not call the police. Illinois ranks 10th nationally, with the highest percentage of ID theft based on population.

Some frightening statistics are contained in a new book by Frank Abagnale, the FBI identity theft expert and former imposter whose life was the subject of the hit movie "Catch Me if You Can." In Stealing Your Life (Broadway Books, $24.95, 256 pages), Abagnale details in frightening detail just how vulnerable we all are.

He's traveling the country on behalf of Staples, the office supply retailer, to promote a new "micro-shredder," the latest in personal finance tools. As Abagnale notes, the investigators in the Enron case were able to reconstruct files that were simply shredded to ribbons. While those credit card offers you toss in the trash might not tempt an identity thief if they're simply torn into pieces, Abagnale's story is a reminder of how loosely we treat our important information.

If your wallet is stolen, your first instinct is to think about the hassle of cancelling your credit cards.

You can blunt part of that hassle by keeping track of your cards and the toll-free phone numbers for contacting each issuer. For a free copy of my Personal Financial Organizer that includes this information, and more, go to, fill in the popup box, and you'll get a reply that links you to this form. Print out the organizer form, and then fill it out with all the information, including your bank, mutual funds and brokerage account numbers, and contact information. Tell your spouse, trusted child or friend where you've placed this form in case of an emergency.

If you know your credit card has been stolen, you have a head start on the thieves by notifying your card issuer, and perhaps by calling the credit bureaus and putting a freeze on your credit report.

But what if an identity thief grabs your information without your knowledge? Through online chatrooms, the thief could sell your identity in a heartbeat.

Another potential disaster stems from immigration scams that use false Social Security numbers to provide documentation to illegal aliens. How would you know if someone is using your Social Security number? It's not so bad, I suppose, that they're reporting income in your name. But what happens when they start opening credit accounts?Check for yourself

Abagnale recommends a service I wrote about nearly a year ago, available at For $79 you can securely access an instant report about where your name appears in all public documents. (Note: you can find only your own information, because access requires answering some personal questions that only you would know, much as online credit reports require this type of security.)

The most important message is how vulnerable we all are - and in so many ways. Do you check your bank balance or shop online using an insecure wireless network, or an Internet café computer?

Assume someone is capturing your keystrokes. Do you click on those e-mails asking you to confirm banking information -- a process called "phishing?" Assume that you've been redirected to a site that lifts your data for resale to a global theft ring.

Think before you click on your computer or toss your trash. Guarding your identity is a full-time process. And that's The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is a registered investment adviser. Check out Terry's answers to reader questions at, and click on Business. Distributed by Creators Syndicate.

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