Could you become a victim of identity theft? Itís more likely than you might expect.

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your identification Ė such as your Social Security number or credit card number Ė without authorization to commit a crime. When it comes to identity theft, prevention is the best defense, according to the National Crime Prevention Council.

The Texas Society of CPAs offers these tips and observations to help you avoid becoming a victim.

How it works

Identity thieves may use your credit card or bank account numbers to make illegal purchases that are charged to you. Or, they may open a new account in your name using your Social Security number. Another ploy is to change the billing address on your credit card, so they can run up bills in your name that you know nothing about.

Keep your eye on your wallet

How do they get your account numbers? The easiest way is to steal your wallet, mail or check. They can then use information on your bank statements, Social Security card, ATM card, driverís license, credit card or other pieces of ID to get important identification numbers and other data, such as your date of birth.

If you suspect anything with personal information has been stolen, be sure to alert the institution that issued the ID immediately. To speed up the process, keep a list of your account numbers and organizationsí customer service telephone numbers in a safe place so you can contact them easily when you need to.

Remember, too, that while credit card holders usually are not liable for more than $50 of unauthorized purchases, debit card holders have fewer protections and may be responsible for the entire loss.

Find out which forms of ID leave you most vulnerable and try to carry them with you less often.

Donít trash

your identity

In addition to theft, scammers often go through trash to find discarded account statements that contain the information they need to make fraudulent purchases.

To prevent this, use a paper shredder to destroy documents that contain personal information. Or, simply tearing apart the paper on which your account number is printed also can deter thieves.

In addition, be sure to take your credit card and ATM receipts with you when you get them. Tear these receipts before you discard them in order to destroy your account number.

Get your credit report

If an identity thief has invaded your accounts, their activity will probably show up on your credit reports. Under federal law, you can request a free credit report from each of the three major credit agencies once a year, and itís a good idea to do that annually.

Privacy rights organizations recommend requesting a report from each agency every four months to get a regular update on whether you have recently been the victim of identity theft. Make sure all transactions are valid and that there arenít any unusual purchases or unfamiliar accounts.

You can find more information on the Federal Trade Commission Web site at www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/credit/freereports.shtm.

Protect yourself

Thereís no one way to prevent identity theft entirely, but there are many smart steps you can take to minimize your chances of becoming a target. Your CPA can advise you on the best way to avoid being victimized by identity fraud and on smart steps to protect your assets.††††† †

Personal finance

For additional personal finance tips, visit www.ValueYourMoney.org. While there, sign up to receive a free monthly electronic newsletter with personal finance tips on a variety of topics. †

About TSCPA

TSCPA is a nonprofit, voluntary, professional organization representing Texas CPAs. The society has 20 local chapters statewide and has 28,000 members, one of the largest in-state memberships of any state CPA society in the United States. TSCPA is committed to serving the public interest with programs that advance the highest standards of ethics and practice within the CPA profession.