Count yourself lucky if no one has tried to steal your good name. Cyber crooks are becoming ever more organized and sophisticated. To stay safe, it's not enough these days to ignore e-mails from widows of African dictators. It's time to get serious about safeguarding your personal information.

Monitoring your credit report will tip you off that someone is impersonating you when you least expect it. "You could have your wallet stolen today, and it may be two years before your information percolates through the bad guys' hands to the person who eventually tries to use it," says Sally Hurme, of AARP Financial Security.

You can get one free credit report a year from each of the three credit bureaus by going to www.annualcreditreport.com. Stagger your requests so you can get a report from one of the bureaus every four months.

Ask lenders about any strange activity, and look carefully at cards you haven't used for a while. Be suspicious of mistakes that appear minor. "One of the first things I look at is the address on the credit report," says Mark Fullbright, a fraud specialist with Identity Theft 911, an ID-theft-resolution service. Thieves often change the billing address so you won't know if your bank sends out a letter alerting you to a problem.

If you see any suspicious activity on your report or bills, if your wallet or other information has been stolen, or if you've been the victim of a security breach, you can place an initial fraud alert on your credit report. A fraud alert requires lenders to take extra steps, such as calling you at a phone number you provide, to verify your identity before granting credit in your name.

To place a 90-day alert, which you can renew indefinitely, contact one of the three credit bureaus (Equifax.com, Experian.com or TransUnion.com). Any one of them will notify the others.

Fraud alerts aren't foolproof, however. For extra protection, you can request a credit freeze, which blocks potential lenders from getting access to your credit report without your authorization. Your current creditors are exempt from the freeze, and you can use a PIN or password to open your file for certain lenders or for a certain time period if you apply for credit.

To be secure, you need to freeze your record at all three bureaus. Costs vary by state, but expect to pay $10 to freeze your account at each bureau and another $10 to lift the freeze, even temporarily. The charge is usually waived for victims of identity theft, and some states offer freezes at no charge to residents older than 65.


Kimberly Lankford is a contributing editor to Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to [email protected].