How to avoid getting your identity stolen

Identity theft is a growing problem, but learning valuable tips to keep you and your family safe is key to ensuring it never happens to you.

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  • Identity theft is a major problem. Not only can the fear of having someone literally take over your life weigh heavily on your mind, but the fact that someone knows all about you, even where you live, can be a scary reality.

  • I am a victim of identity theft. I lived in Arizona at the time with three young children, who sometimes forgot to close down the garage. My purse would hang on a hook inside my laundry room, off of the garage and thieves, who had been basically casing my home, came into that room and took my purse. Within twenty-four hours, they had raked up over $10,000 on my credit card. This led to a three-year nightmare of gaining back my identity, not too mention my safety and that of my family.

  • I learned some things on this nightmare of a journey that unfortunately, I had to learn the hard way.

  • Lock all of your doors — even when you're home

  • If I would have kept the door locked from my garage to my home, the thieves wouldn't have been able to get in. Ensure you have deadbolts on every door. Also, keep your garage door down at all times, unless you're working in the garage and need ventilation.

  • Ensure your credit and debit cards are fraud-protected

  • Most banks and credit unions have fraud protection, but make sure. Ask what kind of protection they have. We were lucky. As soon as I found out my identity had been stolen, I cancelled all of my cards and contacted my credit card companies and credit bureaus, Equifax, Experian and Transunion to report the fraud. They were quick to act and helped with the process of getting back my identity.

  • Make copies of everything

  • Copy your birth certificate, driver's license, social security card and any other important information for proof of identity.

  • Try and keep your important cards in a not-so-obvious place

  • This could include a metal card container that kind of looks like a jewelry box, or even a container you would never think of putting your credit cards or license, such as an used tissue package or even a feminine liner wrapper. The key is to be creative.

  • Report any suspicious activity

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  • Be aware of your neighbors and neighborhood. If you see the same car going up and down your street, several times a day, slowly looking at the homes, it could be a sign someone is casing your neighborhood. It may turn out to be innocent, but you never know. There were construction workers across the street from my house. Because I wasn't aware or didn't think there was a problem, they took advantage of me.

  • Never give out important identity information online

  • Unless you can be assured your information will be safe, don't do it. Sometimes it's easier to have companies keep your credit card information, but if they get hacked your identity is at risk. It's best to be safe than sorry. Also, never give out personal information on a social media website. They can sell your information without you even knowing it.

  • Invest in a shredder

  • From identitytheft.org, shred all of your old financial documents, pre-approved credit card applications and other credit card receipts. Believe or not, thieves will rummage through garbage cans looking for these documents.

  • Be careful at ATM's

  • Thieves have gotten creative. "Shoulder Surfers," can access your pin number just by the way they observe you, so ensure no one is looking over your shoulder or is to the side of you looking at you putting in your pin number. The same goes with phone cards.

  • Don't let mail pile up

  • If possible, have checks deposited directly into your bank account, not sent to your home. Also, if you go on vacation, ensure someone you trust picks up your mail every day.

  • Cancel all old credit cards

  • If you haven't used your credit card in six months, cancel it. Thieves use these very easily as a prime target.

  • Since my identity was stolen, I am very careful about protecting my teenagers, especially since they are also prime targets for thieves. Educate them on how to protect themselves.

  • There are many more things you can do to ensure you and your family's identity is safe. For more information, visit identitytheft.org

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Julia Nielsen is currently parenting three kids with pitfalls and pleasures. She co-authored two published books in "The Crystal Locket" series, and graduated from the Institute of Children's Literature in 2005. Check out her blog: http://jewelswrites.blogspot.com

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