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Take steps to protect yourself from identity theft

Ron Anderson, right, of Willmar unloads a box of his discarded documents Saturday as Mark Suppes, left, and Deb Anderson assist. A community shredding event was conducted at North American State Bank in Willmar. Shredding personal documents with identifying information -- such as a Social Security number or bank account number -- is one way to help guard against identity theft. (Tribune photo by Ron Adams)

We often hear about ways to protect our identity and fraudulent access to our accounts. One of the biggest threats to having your identity stolen is someone obtaining your birth date, Social Security number and ID information, such as your driver's license number.

If identity thieves obtain all of these pieces of information, they have a free pass to create havoc on your finances. Here are a few tips to minimize the possibility of this happening:

1. Do not carry your Social Security number with you. Unfortunately, there are a few identification pieces that still use Social Security numbers, such as Medicare cards. You may need to present your Medicare card to a new medical provider the first time you meet. But as a rule, it is sufficient to take a photocopy of the card, block out the Social Security number and use that for most purposes when your Medicare card is requested.

2. College students should be especially aware of protecting their personal identification information when living in dormitories or with other roommates. Bank account information, Social Security numbers, credit card or debit card numbers and PIN and password information should be kept as inaccessible as possible.

3. In your home, also keep this personal information out of sight. It is unfortunate that identity theft is often a result of people you know who are in your home visiting or providing a service. Lock away information and be careful what you have on your computer that may be accessible to others.

4. Don't enter personal information, especially bank or credit card account numbers or Social Security numbers, on unprotected Internet sites. The same applies for giving this information over the phone, especially if you did not initiate the call yourself. Scam artists often send out letters that include a phone number that is not connected with the major company or financial institution they list in the written material. Make sure you are calling a legitimate number when conducting any business over the phone.

These are just a few things to keep in mind to protect yourself from identity theft.

Vigeland is a financial counselor at the Village Family Service Center in Fargo, N.D. She contributes to the blog