(BPT) - Identity theft: It's the subject of articles everywhere you turn. That's because the problem has exploded in recent years, as new methods for collecting, storing, sharing - and stealing - your personal information have developed.
"Identity theft is an increasingly pervasive problem, particularly in today's digital economy," says Trey Loughran, president of the Personal Solutions unit at Equifax.
Identity theft topped the list of national consumer complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission in 2012, for the 13th consecutive year. It accounts for 18 percent of all complaints, up from 15 percent in 2011.
Identity theft can involve taking over your credit account, stealing your tax refund, taking out loans in your name, accessing personal bank accounts or even running up medical bills using your name. You might not notice these crimes until they're done, which can mean you'll have months of inconvenience and time spent correcting the problem, in addition to the financial cost.
You may be more vulnerable than you realize. Common opportunities for identity theft include:
* Collecting personal information you've shared over unsecured websites
* Completing change-of-address forms to redirect your mail
* Going through your mail or trash to find credit offers, bank and credit card statements, or medical records
* Stealing personal information you're carrying if your wallet or purse is lost or stolen
* Stealing your mobile device
You could turn around and discover bad checks, loans or credit card bills that are suddenly your responsibility. Your savings account could be wiped out and your credit ruined.
Even children are vulnerable because of their clean credit histories.
Equifax recently launched a website, IdentityProtection.com, that provides consumers with information on identity theft and how to help protect themselves. "Consumers who are armed with useful knowledge and tools can be a powerful deterrent to the rapid growth of this 'invisible' crime," Loughran says.
The identity theft experts at Equifax offer some advice:
* When you sign up for a catalog or add your name to a mailing list, consider if the benefit is worth sharing your personal information with someone who could potentially sell it.
* If you sign up for email coupons or loyalty programs, don't share your full address or any financial information.
* Ensure your passwords used for online banking and shopping sites are strong and unique; use a different password for each site. Mark your calendar to change your passwords every 90 days.
* Request that your medical and insurance providers assign you a unique personal identification number. Don't reveal medical or insurance information by phone or email unless you made the first contact. File paper and electronic copies of your records in a secure location, and shred any outdated medical documents, including old prescription labels.
* If your passport has been lost or stolen, prevent someone from ordering a new one in your name by contacting the U.S. State Department's Passport Services Department.
* Remember - the IRS doesn't contact taxpayers through email, text message or social media. If you get a message from a sender that is identified as the IRS, don't respond or click on any links. Forward the email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Don't wait until you or your family become victims of identity theft. The more you know about this problem and how to help protect yourself, the safer you'll be.