How to guard against ID theft

NEW YORK — It is the largest case of identity theft in the country. More than 41 million credit and debit card numbers were stolen by an international ring that hacked into the computer networks of nine national retail chains, including Barnes &Noble, BJ’s Wholesale Club, OfficeMax and TJX Cos.

This week’s indictments serve as a warning to consumers. But they also can serve as a reminder to take a few simple steps to protect yourself from this kind of crime, which affects as many as eight million Americans each year, costing billions of dollars and countless hours to correct the problems it creates.

They include:

Limit access to information. Carry as few credit cards as possible, and leave your Social Security card at home. Never give out personal information over the phone, by mail or on the Internet unless you initiated the exchange and are clear why you’re sharing such details.

Other steps include emptying your mailbox as soon as possible; disposing of credit card offers, bills and other personal papers before discarding them.

Minimize use of debit cards. It’s advised that you limit or eliminate use of debit or check cards linked to bank accounts, especially online. With debit cards it’s harder to recover losses than with credit cards.

Review credit statements. Routinely review statements for unauthorized purchases. If you spot one, a call to the credit card company will start an investigation and the questionable purchases will be reversed under most circumstances. Companies will also issue new account numbers upon request. Thieves will often change the billing address on existing accounts to delay detection. If your statement doesn’t appear on time, consider that a red flag and take action.

Monitor credit reports. Upon request, federal law requires each of the three national credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion — to provide consumers with one free credit report each year. The reports can be obtained at or by mail. Consumer advocates recommend rotating requests among the three companies, obtaining a report every four months.

Request an alert or freeze. If you believe there may be a problem, you can ask the credit reporting companies to put a fraud alert and possibly a security freeze on your credit information. A fraud alert requires potential creditors to contact you or use “reasonable policies and procedures” to verify identity before issuing new credit in your name. They are free, but last for only 90 days. They can be renewed repeatedly, but it’s up to a consumer to contact the companies after the first alert has expired.

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