What you should to to help protect yourself from identity theft: Shred documents with personal information

Toss the wrong thing in the trash and you could lose your identity — and thousands of dollars.



 


Simply by pulling a discarded bill or other document, a thief could rack up thousands of dollars of debt in your name, ruin your credit score or pose as you while committing a crime.



 


Identity theft is the fastest-growing form of fraud, said Kelly Hook of AMCORE bank.



A report issued in March by Gartner banking security analyst Avivah Litan estimates 15 million Americans will become victims of identity theft in 2007, up 50 percent from 2005.



 


About 15 million Americans were victimized by some sort of fraud related to identity theft in the 12 months ending in mid-2006, according to a survey by Gartner Inc., an information technology research and advisory company. That’s more than a 50 percent increase since 2003 when the Federal Trade Commission reported 9.9 million American adult identity theft victims.



 


According to the Gartner survey of 5,000 online U.S. adults in August 2006, the average loss was $3,257 in 2006, up from $1,408 in 2005.


 


Criminals use stolen data to create cell-phone and credit-card accounts, pay medical bills, even take out auto loans and mortgages. As scammers open multiple accounts and rack up unpaid balances, victims are left to unravel the mess. With their credit histories corrupted, they can end up paying higher interest rates for years.



AMCORE hopes to raise awareness about the ways an identity can be stolen by hosting Shred Fests at local bank branches throughout July.


 


“We want to make it easy for people to shred their sensitive documents, but also educate them about what they can do to protect their identity,” Hook said.



Alpine Bank also held a shred day May 19, and marketing and communications coordinator Sue Cadie said turnout was higher than average for the company that brought the shredders, an estimated 75 to 85 people.



 


“There’s so much talk about identity theft,” she said. “People are more aware and don’t want to keep sensitive documents around too long.”


 


She said Alpine Bank held its event in May because it was close to tax time.



The Illinois attorney general’s office had 5,241 complaints of identity theft last year, and spokesman Scott Mulford said it is going to have “no problem topping them next year.”



 


This year, 4,080 complaints have been filed.



From January to June, there have been 67 reports of deceptive practices, 192 reports of fraud, 92 reports of identity theft and 62 reports of credit card fraud in Rockford, according to police reports.



 


Shredding documents is only one step in preventing identity theft.


Keeping credit cards in sight when paying for things, using anti-virus and firewall software when shopping online, reviewing account transactions and credit reports regularly and shredding all unwanted documents are ways to protect your identity.



And think twice about what you tell people on the phone.



 


“What we try to encourage customers to do is not to give that information out over the phone,” said AMCORE spokeswoman Rita Elliot. One thing to remember: A bank will never call and ask to verify an account number.


 


For AMCORE’s Shred Fest, Shred-it Corp. will have equipment to destroy documents with personal information like Social Security numbers, date of birth, credit-card numbers and any other information you don’t want a Dumpster diver to find.



AMCORE tested the idea at two locations last year and held several in Madison in May and June.



 


“At every single Shred Fest, people ask when there is going to be another one,” Hook said. “They want to know if we’re doing it again, or if it will be at another location.”



Cadie from Alpine Bank said it has also received calls from customers wondering when it is holding another Shred Day. She said there will be a back-to-school shred day in September.



 


Local law enforcement will be on-site for the Rockford-area AMCORE events to offer more tips on preventing identity theft.


 


AMCORE will also provide refreshments and door prizes including an MP3 player, Elliot said.



Reporter Katie Micik may be reached at 815-987-1364 or at kmicik@rockford.gannett.com.