Every day you share personal information about yourself with others. It's so routine that you may not even realize you're doing it. You may write a check at the grocery store, charge tickets to a ball game, rent a car, mail your tax returns, buy a gift online, call home on your cell phone, schedule a doctor's appointment or apply for a credit card.
Each transaction requires you to share personal information: your bank and credit card account numbers; your income; your Social Security number (SSN); or your name, address, and phone numbers.
It's important to find out what happens to the personal information you and your children provide to companies, marketers, and government agencies. These organizations may use your information simply to process your order; to tell you about products, services, or promotions; or to share with others.
And then there are unscrupulous individuals, like identity thieves, who want your information to commit fraud. Identity theft -- the fastest-growing white-collar crime in America -- occurs when someone steals your personal identifying information, like your SSN, birth date, or mother's maiden name, to open new charge accounts, order merchandise, or borrow money.
Consumers targeted by identity thieves usually don't know they've been victimized. But when the fraudsters fail to pay the bills or repay the loans, collection agencies begin pursuing the consumers to cover debts they didn't even know they had.
The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) encourages you to make sure your transactions -- online and off -- are secure and your personal information is protected. The FTC offers these tips to help you manage your personal information wisely, and to help minimize its misuse:
Put passwords on your all your accounts, including your credit card account, and your bank and phone accounts. Avoid using easily available information -- like your mother's maiden name, your birth date, the last four digits of your SSN, or your phone number -- or obvious choices, like a series of consecutive numbers or your hometown football team.
Minimize the identification information and the number of cards you carry to what you'll actually need. Don't put all your identifying information in one holder in your purse, briefcase, or backpack.
Keep items with personal information in a safe place. When you discard receipts, copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks and statements, expired charge cards, credit offers you get in the mail, and mailing labels from magazines, tear or shred them. That will help thwart any identity thief who may pick through your trash or recycling bins to capture your personal information.
Order a copy of your credit report. Make sure it's accurate and includes only those activities you've authorized. Each of the nationwide consumer reporting companies -- Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion -- are required to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months.
To order your free annual report from one or all national consumer reporting companies, visit www.annualcreditreport.com, call toll-free 1-877-322-8228, or complete the Annual Credit Report Request Form and mail it to:
Annual Credit Report Request Service
P.O. Box 105281
Atlanta, GA 30348-5281