Identity theft is a serious crime that affects as many as 10 million Americans each year.

Victims can end up spending a considerable amount of time and money cleaning up the mess that thieves leave behind.

Thieves have a variety of ways they can steal your information and it’s important that you protect your mail, wallet or purse as much as you can. Beware of scam emails, also known as “phishing,” and phone calls where thieves lie to get your information.

Thieves have been known to steal personnel records and bribe employees for access; they also will try and break into your computer electronically.

Once they get your information, thieves can set up credit cards in your name, rent property or open telephone and utility accounts. They may try and use your name to get a driver license or official ID card and then go apply for government benefits.

Before you know it, thieves can drain your bank accounts or open a new one and write bad checks.

Unfortunately, many people only learn their identity has been stolen after significant damage has occurred and they hear from a bill collection agency or see something on their credit report.

To catch identity theft, monitor your accounts and bank statements every month and be alert to these signs that require immediate attention:

•Mail or bills that don’t arrive as expected

•Unexpected credit card or account statements

•Credit denial for no apparent reason

•Calls or letters about purchases you didn’t make

Be sure and check your credit report on a regular basis. You can receive a free annual report from all three major credit agencies by visiting online at https://www.annualcreditreport.com.

If you find that your identity has been stolen, you need to file a police report, notify creditors and dispute any unauthorized transactions.

Another way to help prevent theft is to shred any financial documents and paperwork before discarding them. Keep your personal information in a secure place at home, especially if you have roommates, employ outside help or are having work done in your house.

Don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or write it on a check. Give it out only when necessary.

Don’t give out personal information on the telephone, through the mail or over the Internet unless you have initiated the contact and know whom you’re dealing with on the matter.

Never click on links in unsolicited emails. Instead, type in a web address you know. Protect your computers with up-to-date firewalls, anti-spyware and anti-virus software.

Set up strong passwords and don’t use obvious ones like your birth date, your mother’s maiden name or the last four digits of your Social Security number.

Before you sell or discard a computer, format or destroy its hard drive.

If you have a group that would like to learn more about identity theft, the Ellis County Sheriff’s Office Crime Prevention Division can schedule a comprehensive presentation. Contact our crime prevention specialists at 972-825-4948.

Johnny Brown has served as Sheriff of Ellis County since Jan. 1, 2009, and is a graduate of the National Sheriff’s Institute. He has been in law enforcement for 20 years and holds a Master’s Peace Officer’s Certificate with the Texas Commission on Law Enforcement Officer Standards and Education.