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Protect your information from scammers and thieves.

Identity fraud affected over 5% of consumers in 2012, ringing up a total cost of $20.9 billion, according to the Javelin Strategy and Research Center. Many seemingly harmless behaviors can make you vulnerable to identify theft: making purchases over the phone, recycling old bills or logging onto free WiFi. And simply losing your wallet or digital devices can be a golden opportunity for identity thieves. But you can protect yourself from these criminals by practicing these savvy – and simple – behaviors.

1. Keep information from scammers
Online scam artists go fishing for money on the Internet by sending official-looking emails that appear to be from a large banking institution. The messages ask the recipient to click on a link and re-enter personal data in order to verify accounts. A similar scam involves phone calls in which someone pretends to be a representative of a bank or government institution – and, of course, they need your Social Security number or bank account numbers. Never share your information unless you are the one who contacted a bank or institution.

2. Only use social media for socializing
Thoroughly investigate any friends’ appeals for “emergency funds” through Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites. More often than not, those messages are the work of hackers. A woman in Missouri made the national news after wiring $4,000 to identity thieves in England masquerading as a Facebook friend in need.

3. Invest in a shredder
When it comes to identity thieves, one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. Some criminals will wade through garbage at dump sites or before weekly trash pickups, looking for billing statements with telltale account numbers. So resist the temptation to simply toss all your mail into the recycling bin. Instead, take the time to shred anything with personal information first.

4. Visit the Post Office
Whenever you send bill payments or checks through the mail, bring it to a postal facility or drop it directly in a blue United States Postal Service mailbox. This will prevent identity thieves from seeing personal information on outgoing bill payment stubs – or chemically stripping checks of their ink and instead making your payments out to their own names. If your mail ever is stolen, U.S. Postal Inspector Public Information Officer Peter R. Rendina suggests reporting the crime online at postalinspectors.uspis.gov.

If you have been the victim of identity theft, file a police report then download and fill out a copy of the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Victims’ Complaint and Affidavit (PDF). Send copies to your credit card companies and the credit bureaus to alert them to the problem and to make sure you’re on track to getting your identity back.

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