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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.

In addition to quick action like Mary took, South Carolinians have additional tools to help deter fraudsters.

One is a law enacted with the support of AARP South Carolina that allows state residents to put a security freeze on their credit file — at no cost — so no one can look at the file without the consumer's consent.

That means a scammer trying to open a checking account or credit card in someone's name won't be able to because the creditor can't access the consumer's credit file. A consumer who wants to apply for credit can unlock the account using a personal identification number.

To apply for a freeze, consumers can call, go online or send a written request to each of the three major credit bureaus. South Carolina is one of the only states with legislation to allow all consumers to place or lift a freeze free of charge.

"South Carolina's best kept secret is that the state has one of the strongest identity theft laws in the country," said AARP South Carolina spokesman Patrick Cobb. "People should take advantage of it."

The security freeze is a good tool for anyone who has been a victim of fraud or ID theft or who is concerned about becoming a victim. It also serves as extra security for someone who has no intention of applying for credit in the near future, said state Consumer Affairs Administrator Carri Grube Lybarker.

Guard your privacy

Lybarker recommended other steps for consumer protection:

Never carry your Social Security card and don't write the number on checks. If someone requests the number, always ask why they need it and how it will be used.

Shred old documents, including credit card offers, and store personal documents in a secure place at home.

Don't share personal information with family or friends. Keep track of financial statements, check credit reports annually and update computer firewalls and antivirus protections.

Mary has taken extra precautions since her ID was stolen. She's vigilant about checking her bank statement and knows exactly when it will arrive. She doesn't give out personal information and now uses a locking mailbox.

"Don't let it happen in the first place," she advised. "Check every statement and receipt from A to Z."

Amy Geier Edgar is a writer living in Racine, Wis.

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