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Are you making it too easy for identity thieves?

It's easy to bash the crooks and con artists who prey on the innocent. They seem to have no conscience or concept that what they're doing is wrong.

But are you making it too easy for them? Are you setting yourself up to be a victim?

Consider identity theft.

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that as many as 9 million Americans have their identities stolen each year. The crime can take many forms, the FTC reports. Thieves may rent an apartment, obtain a credit card, or establish a telephone account in your name. You may not find out about the theft until you review your credit report or a credit card statement and notice charges you didn't make -- or until you're contacted by a debt collector.

That's a shocking situation you don't ever want to find yourself in. The FTC notes that identity theft victims can spend hundreds of dollars and many days repairing damage to their good name and credit record. Some consumers victimized by identity theft may lose out on job opportunities, or be denied loans for education, housing or cars because of negative information on their credit reports, according to the FTC. In rare cases, they may even be arrested for crimes they did not commit.

Anyone can have their identity stolen from them, but there are steps people can take to reduce the possibility. Here they are (as printed in the Power Connection newsletter printed by Stearns Electric Association):

• Don't carry more than one credit card with you during daily activities.

• Report the loss or theft of any credit cards to the issuers immediately.

• Avoid using your debit card for online purchases -- your credit card is better protected against fraud. (If your credit card is used without your authorization and you've reported the theft, you're only responsible for the first $50 in charges.) Check with your card's issuing bank to find out what kind of protection you may have.

• Install and update virus protection software and install a firewall on your home computer if you use the Web at home.

• Keep photocopies of your credit cards, debit card and driver's license in a secure place.

• Don't give out personal information such as credit card numbers over the phone, unless you have initiated the phone call to a trusted company.

• Avoid throwing away your receipts in public trash containers or shred receipts that show your entire account number on paper.

• Check your mailbox regularly if you're expecting a new credit card.

• Check your credit report at least once a year.

• Don't include your Social Security number on your checks or driver's license. Also avoid carrying your Social Security card in your wallet -- if you lose your wallet, anyone can use the number. -- Alexandria Echo Press