Take steps to protect against identity theft

Terry Blaschke: Guest Columnist

Identity theft is the nation’s fastest-growing crime. More than 40,000 Americans reported incidents of identity theft during 2000, with more than half of the complaints involving credit card fraud, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

That’s roughly one case of identity theft reported every 19 minutes.

Identity thieves can strike at any time. Often customers don’t end up paying for fraudulent charges in cash losses, but the havoc that is wreaked on credit reports and the time spent to clear their records is certainly worth a few minor precautions.

Here are some tips to protect yourself from fraud:

• Keep PIN numbers to yourself. Make sure you’re the only person who knows them and never give them out. Criminals can use this information, drain your accounts and commit fraud in your name.

• Check your mail regularly. If you are missing mail that contains personal account information, you could be a victim of identity theft. Criminals can steal your financial mail and commit fraud in your name.

• Protect your credit and debit cards from theft. Never give out the numbers, even to someone claiming to be from an organization you trust. Make sure online purchases are done only on sites that are secure. Cut up old credit cards to avoid providing criminals with information to drain your accounts and commit fraud.

• Make sure you know whom you’re talking to before you give out credit card or other personal information over the phone.

• Keep a close eye on your finances. Online banking is a great way to monitor your bank accounts daily, or at the very least weekly. Always read your bank and credit card statements to validate the purchases.

• Secure your trash. Criminals can steal personal information right out of your trash can. Make sure to tear up or shred any financial mail before you throw it away.

• Don’t carry your Social Security card, birth certificate or passport in your wallet. The number is key to your identity and can open doors for criminals. Keep them in a secure place at home or in a safe deposit box.

Your bank is a business you can trust. If you suspect fraud, contact your banker right away. Explain the situation and your suspicions.

If you find yourself in a situation where your credit or debit cards have been stolen or lost, contact the credit companies or bank immediately. Have this information readily available by making copies of the fronts and backs of all of your credit cards and store it in a safe place at home or at the office.

Additional resources include the United States Government’s Web site

or call the Federal Trade Commission’s identity theft hotline at 1-877-ID-THEFT.

Terry Blaschke is market president of First Community Bank in Clovis. Contact him at 742-7446.