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Protect yourself from identity theft

Shoppers may spend less this holiday season, but it’s unlikely crime will take a holiday in the final months of 2008.

It’s important to protect yourself, your property and your hard-earned cash from thieves — especially identity thieves — while you’re holiday shopping this year.

Law enforcement agencies across the county routinely report crime spikes during the holiday season, and there’s no reason to think this year will be any different. Identity theft — the unauthorized use of personal information like your name, Social Security or credit card numbers — generated the most consumer complaints in 2007, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

Victims spend an average of 300 hours repairing the damage wrought by ID thieves.

Marengo County Chief Deputy Sheriff Tommy Reese says this kind of theft is on the rise in the county, leading local law enforcement agencies to warn people of possible scams.

“We’ve seen a significant rise in identity thefts, consumer fraud and scams in the past six months,” Reese said last month.

“As the economy gets tighter, criminals tend to get a little more bolder with these types of scams and innocent people looking for a quick fix to their money problems are quick to take a gamble and fall for such schemes.”

Each month, more arrests are being made for ID theft.

“It used to be that robbers would use guns and knives to steal your money. Now they use the computer, the telephone and the mail,” said Reese.

“We expect to see a rise in these kinds of crimes during the holiday season. People need to take caution.”

Here are a few ways to protect yourself from identity thieves during the holidays and throughout the coming year:

 When shopping at the mall or other retail centers, never leave your purse, wallet or purchases in the car.

 Likewise, minimize the identifying information and financial cards you carry in your wallet.

You may be tempted to clean out your car when you stop for gas, but never leave receipts, especially bank receipts, bill stubs or any other identifying paperwork in a public trash can.

When shopping online, stick with sites that have the closed lock icon at the bottom of your browser. It means you’re dealing with a site that practices security measures.

 Smart safety and shopping practices, and the right protection tools, can help ensure the holidays stay bright for you this year, and not for the identity thieves.