Dear Readers: Identity theft can be devastating to your credit rating! When your personal information is used to commit fraud or other crimes, it can affect your life, too! According to the Federal Trade Commission, there are signs you should be aware of that might signal trouble:

• Bills that don't arrive when expected.

• Unusual credit cards or account statements.

• Denial of credit for unknown reasons.

• Calls or letters about purchases you haven't made.

To help prevent identity theft, you should:

• Shred all financial documents with your personal information.

• Only give out your Social Security number when absolutely necessary, or ask if some other form of identification can be used.

• Never give out personal information on the phone, through the mail or online unless you know who you're dealing with.

• Don't use obvious passwords like your birth date, mother's maiden name or the last four digits of your Social Security number.

To be on the safe side, you can receive a free credit report from one of the major consumer reporting companies by visiting www.AnnualCreditReport.com or calling 877-322-8228. If you'd like, you can write to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.

My thanks to the Federal Trade Commission for allowing me to share this information. —Heloise

Dear Heloise: I use granular houseplant food that comes in a box with a plastic bag inside. The box gets pretty beaten up over time. So, I cut off the instructions and place them, along with the little bag with the plant food and the measuring spoon, inside a large, sturdy, sealable plastic bag. It stays neat, and no moisture can get into the plant food.

—A "Green Thumb" Reader from Falls Church, Va.

Dear Heloise: After moving to an apartment with no washer and dryer, I found myself saving up quarters to use at the nearby self-laundry. I discovered that a small, plastic medication bottle was the perfect size to hold about $10 worth of quarters. It is so easy to locate the bottle when it's time to pop the quarters into the machines. —Carol H. from Mission Viejo, Calif.

Dear Heloise: Our family has so many different-size thermal mugs (megasize to small coffee-mug shapes) that it became impossible and clumsy to store them all in my kitchen cupboards. When I wash and dry them, I hang them up by the handles in our utility room, where we exit for work, school or recreation, on a peg hanger. I also keep caps and coats on different hangers to make grabbing them all on the way out so easy. —Michelle L., Chanute, Kan.

Dear Heloise: Save those old foil balloons. Deflate and use as a waterproof liner for a basket. They are already round and make for a colorful liner. When watering flowers potted in containers with drain holes, the water won't leak through the basket. —Jan Shearer, Jefferson, Ore.

Dear Heloise: A couple of things to add about keeping safe: Always walk to and from your car into a store or whatever with nothing on your mind but getting in and out safely. Don't be walking and thinking about what you need to buy or what store you want to go to next. Keep your car keys in your hand while walking back to the car, which not only keeps you ready to get in, but they can also be used as a weapon. —Pat in Texas

Dear Heloise: After reading in your column about all the ways that purses have been stolen, I have for the past 15 years given up mine.

I used to carry a purse that I thought I needed with everything in it, but I discovered that I did not. My shoulder used to hurt from having the purse on it. I had so much junk in it.

I have a small bag that has everything in it in my pants pocket. I cringe when I see elderly women carrying their purses, which could be taken from them. —Helen Keuffner, via e-mail


Send a money-saving or timesaving hint to Heloise, P.O. Box 795000, San Antonio, TX 78279-5000, or you can fax it to 210-435-6473 or e-mail it to [email protected]. I can't answer your letter personally but will use the best hints received in my column. © King Features Syndicate Inc.