Protect yourself from ID thieves

HOUSTON Your identity -- it can be taken away from you in the blink of an eye, and your good name and your credit can be destroyed just like that.

"Once it's been infiltrated, it takes thousands of dollars to get it all cleared up," Deputy W. Lindsey said.

But arming yourself with the right information from the right people could make all the difference in the world. We went straight to the source for answers: the team of investigators who work in the Financial Crimes Division of the Harris County Sheriff's Office.

"The biggest thing is, I don't order anything online without calling the 800 number," Harris County Sheriff's Office Lt. J. Stauber said.

It's critical that you make sure the business you're giving your credit card number to is legit. While shopping online, the investigators all agree that you should steer clear of websites that include the word cheap and be weary of the ones that promise you big saving; and never, ever use your debit card to buy merchandise. It's like leaving a digital thumbprint.

"If you use your debit card and somebody compromises your information, what happens is it comes directly out of your bank account," Sgt. M. Ellison said.

Sgt. Ellison says he also pays his bills with cashier's checks and uses cash for practically everything else. The ATM is another place where your personal information can be compromised.

Skimming devices, which look like part of the ATM, can read and steal your pin number, and you'd never even know it. That's why it's important to use one that you're familiar with and to ask questions.

"Ask them, do they have a scheduled maintenance for the ATM? If it's checked regularly, get familiar with your bank and with your personnel," Sgt. L. Peterson said.

Believe it or not, your personal information can fall into the wrong hands if your medical records are not secure. The next time you go to the doctor or dentist, consider putting just the last four digits of your Social Security number on the form or leaving it blank.

"I'll question, do you really need this information? Is it asking for too much of my personal information? Because that's the whole purpose of having an insurance card," Sgt. M. Ester said.

You should also check your bank accounts daily. One investigator even has his Social Security number monitored through his bank.

Remember, a little vigilance can go a long way.

Below are more schemes identity thieves use and how you can protect yourself:

Always look at your receipt to see if the full credit card number is on it. Only the last four numbers of the card should appear on the receipt. If your card is keyed in manually, the complete number will appear. If that happens, make sure you scratch it out.

Invest in a cross-cut shredder. It's one of the best ways to protect yourself against identity theft.

Don't ever leave your outgoing mail in the mailbox. Make sure you take it to the post office.

Always keep your eye on your card. Ask the clerk, waiter or waitress where they are taking it to complete a transaction.

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