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Dealing with identity theft

Nearly 12 million adults were victims of identity fraud last year, up 13 percent from the previous year, according to Javelin Strategy and Research. Identity fraud or theft occur when thieves use your personal information to commit a crime, whether that means stealing your credit card details or using your Social Security number to set up a fraudulent bank account. The Minnesota Society of CPAs (MNCPA) recommends these steps to take after - and even before - identity theft happens.

Understand the dangers

One of the best ways to prevent identity theft is to understand the many ways that it works. It can involve devices that steal your credit card numbers when you make a purchase, or a sophisticated hacking scheme, but there are also many low-tech methods. Sometimes thieves will comb through dumpsters, for example, to find your bank or investment account statements or other confidential documents. If you think that this has happened to you or is likely to happen, you may consider buying a paper shredder or simply tearing up your statements before you throw them out to make it harder for thieves to glean information from them. If you own a small business, keep in mind that federal and state laws have been enacted for businesses that employ as few as one worker, requiring that they destroy confidential information before they dispose of it. These laws will only get more stringent over time and broader in scope.

Phishing: Don't take the bait

Phishing has been around for a while, but scam artists continue to come up with new angles, so it's wise to be on guard. Phishing generally involves a fake email or other communication that's designed to look like it came from your bank or another financial institution or even a government agency. The message urges you to click on a link where you'll be told to reveal some confidential financial information. If you get this kind of communication, make a phone call to the organization that supposedly sent it to confirm that it's legitimate. In most cases, you'll probably find that it is not.

Keep up with your credit scores

Identity thieves don't just steal your credit card number, they may also set up completely separate accounts in your name, then neglect paying the bills they run up. One way to find out if this is happening to you is to monitor your credit ratings with the three major credit rating agencies. If you discover accounts you've never heard of, you may be able to prevent some of the consequences of identity theft, including the damage it can do to your credit rating.

Don't share too much on social media

Many people reveal their full birthdays and personal details such as pets' or school names on Facebook or other social media accounts. Unfortunately, this is just the kind of information that financial institutions and other organizations use to verify your identity before allowing you access to your account. While it's fun to share these details with friends, there's a great danger that thieves will use it to clear out your bank account, run up charges in your name or open an account you know nothing about. Before you pump up your online profile, consider how an identity thief might use those details.

Act quickly

If you find out that your identity has been stolen, there are a number of steps you should take immediately. File a police report to establish a record of the theft and any consequences that you have discovered. Challenge any related transactions with the merchants or financial institutions involved and close any accounts to which thieves may have had access. Report the problem to the credit rating agencies and ask that your credit reports be corrected and that a fraud alert be placed on your records. Also let your creditors know about the problem in case any changes in your credit rating affect your borrowing options. Finally, look into filing a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which will provide you with an ID Theft Complaint Form.