A good friend e-mailed me last week to say she had become a victim of identity theft. She found out she was in a titanic mess when she started receiving phone calls about her applications to buy a car, enter a graduate program and get credit cards. If this can happen to Samantha, it can happen to anyone. She is a professional mental health counselor, an instructor and a very together lady. She thought she was doing everything to avoid identity theft and was safe. She was wrong.

If this information is making you feel a little anxious I am glad to hear it. This crime is not only disruptive, it can be devastating. Samantha is not alone, there are over 10 million victims of identity theft in the United States – and the number is growing. On average victims spend over $1750 and 175 hours to recover from their distressing experience.

Here are some suggestions to help you avoid identity theft.

[1] Use Your Shredder.

I was in Staples yesterday and noticed that the variety of shredders has multiplied greatly in the last year or two. They run from $25 to well over $300. Use your shredder to destroy any document on which important identity information is written, such as your social security number, credit card account numbers, and bank account numbers. My advice to you is—when in doubt shred.

[2] Never Give Out Identity Information over the Phone or in Emails.

The person who calls you to ask for a donation for the Troopers Fund is not a trooper. Banks will not call to ask for your account information and there is no king in Ethiopia desperately attempting to bring money to the US. Unless you are positive (i.e., known the caller since birth) don’t give out any identification information.

[3] Ask the Big 3 Credit Bureaus to Remove Your Name from Marketing Lists.

Credit bureaus provide information to credit card companies for marketing. That is one reason your mailbox if full of offers from banks. It is very easy for a thief to open your mailbox and remove these offers. I can tell you from experience, they look in your trash also. Contact Equifax, Trans Union Credit Services, and Experian and ask to be removed from their marketing list. Read ‘Credit, the Good the Bad and the Ugly’ for information about Credit Bureaus.

[4] Guard Your PIN Numbers.

Don’t write your PIN number where it will be available to others. Don’t enter your PIN number at an ATM if someone is close enough to observe your number.

[5] Destroy Information Before You Dump That Defunct Computer.

If you are like me, your life is on your computer. A thief can harvest a multitude of data about you and your finances from your old hard drive. Get physical with that drive, beat it to death. It should be in no condition to be resurrected when you discard it.

[6] Don’t Carry More Identification Than You Need.

If someone were to steal your wallet while you are browsing at Target what would they get? Right, they would have a ton of personal information about you and your family. Guard your purse or wallet and carry only the essentials.

[7] Make Certain Your Credit Card Company Includes Fraud Guard.

Some credit card companies product you against purchases you did not authorize. Make certain that your bank has this advantage. You don’t want to pay for a thief’s new Harley. This came in handy when my wallet disappeared in Washington, DC.

Let me end by suggesting that you buy stock in a shredder company. Also, be consistent and keep abreast of new laws and regulations on identity theft. It is the fastest growing crime in this century. Be alert. Be consistent in your efforts to avoid becoming a victim. Now, go “reve” up that shredder and register for Identity Theft Protection service to be absolutely sure that your Identity is safe.