Prevent identity theft during tax season

According to the National Crime Prevention Council, filing late taxes isn't the only danger looming around this time of year.

Tax season brings with it a scrambling around homes to gather pay stubs, receipts for charitable donations, and interest statements received throughout the year.

Thieves know this too, making it prime opportunity to get their hands on the names and numbers that could help them open bank accounts, take out loans and commit other crimes in someone else's name.

A recent survey by the U.S. Department of Justice's Bureau of Justice Statistics says that 3.6 million households, or about 3 percent of all households in the United States, had been the victim of at least one type of identity theft during a six-month period in 2004. In some cases, victims have lost their jobs and even been criminally prosecuted for crimes committed in their names.

However, you can protect yourself against identity theft by taking several precautions:

• Shred documents with personal information thieves can use. Documents such as phone bills, credit card receipts, and mail-order catalogs all hold valuable information tied to your identity.

• Never give out your personal information over the phone or Internet unless you have initiated the contact. "Phishing" is a popular scam where identity thieves pose as a bank or credit card company asking you to "verify" your account information through a false e-mail. Legitimate businesses will not contact you in this manner.

• Remove your Social Security number from personal checks, and securely store your SSN card in a place other than your wallet.

• Use only secure Web sites for Internet transactions, and always check the Web address in your browser's window to make sure you are on the correct site for the business before you give out personal information; many crooks set up sham sites that look like the real thing.

• Carefully review your monthly credit card and bank statements for unfamiliar transactions.

• Check your credit records once a year with the three major credit bureaus. Check immediately if you think something unusual is going on with your accounts. You can get a copy of your credit report for free at

• Retrieve your mail from your mailbox promptly. If you're going away for a few days, have the post office hold it. Thieves "shop" mailboxes for identity information.

• Report suspicious activity right away. Alert any one of the three major credit bureaus (Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion) to the possible fraud, close the account you think has been compromised, file a police report in case you need to provide proof of the crime, and file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at its Web site

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