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How to Foil ID Theft

South Carolina law allows consumers to put a lock on their credit reports — without paying a fee

The statement from Mary's bank had been accidentally mixed in with her neighbors' mail, and it sat in their mailbox all weekend. When the neighbors returned home and gave the letter to Mary, "I think every hair on my head stood up when I saw that envelope," the 84-year-old Columbia resident said.

The envelope had been carefully slit open. Mary's personal information — her birth date, Social Security number and bank account number — had been exposed.

See also: Are you smarter than a con artist?

Mary immediately notified the police, postal inspector and her bank. Even though it was just before Christmas in 2009, Mary placed all her accounts and spending on hold and notified credit card companies, the Social Security Administration and credit bureaus.

A thief tried to use her personal information to order a set of checks but was blocked by Mary's quick action. She didn't lose any money, but she had to close her checking and savings accounts. The experience left her so concerned about privacy breaches that she asked that her last name not be printed.

Identity theft can be at the hands of complete strangers or perpetrated by friends or family members, including caretakers of frail older people.

It can involve stolen wallets or receipts; dishonest employees stealing bank or health care information; or scams on the phone or Internet with thieves misrepresenting themselves and asking for personal information.

Nationally, identity theft accounts for $50 billion in losses annually, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which said South Carolinians filed more than 3,100 ID theft complaints in 2011.

Next: Tools for South Carolinians. »

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