Dear Heloise: Hurricanes, tornadoes, fires, earthquakes and man-made disasters are frightening, and they may also cause chaos and put at risk your personal security. Taking a few minutes today to create an action plan might help you avoid identity-theft-related situations.

Be prepared to evacuate:

• Keep copies of birth certificates, drivers' licenses, Social Security cards, death certificates, insurance papers and any other vital papers for each family member in a locked box. Place the box in your car only when you are ready to leave. Unfortunately, thieves sometimes loot cars parked in driveways, ready to evacuate. You will need those papers to identify yourself with various assistance groups and with insurance companies.

• Keep the locked box in sight at all times, even in a shelter. If necessary, put the papers in a large plastic bag and tape them to your inner clothing.

• Few people want to leave computers behind. If you are time-crunched or limited in space, remove the hard drive and take that with you.

• Develop a plan of action in case family members are separated. You might want to designate a family member or friend in a different state as the contact person that you all will call. Usually phone lines are busy or down in local disaster areas.

Scams:

• Con artists pretend to call from a company that "lost data." They will ask for bank-account, credit-card or Social Security numbers. Companies will not contact you this way.

• Scam artists also call for donations for assistance groups that may or may not exist. During a crisis, most relief agencies are busy attending to the immediate needs of victims.

Lost information:

• If you conduct business with a company affected by the disaster, contact the company once it has had time to determine if any vital papers (financial records, Social Security numbers, etc.) are missing. Ask what steps you should take or what it plans to do.

• If you find documents with information that is of a sensitive nature, turn them over to the police.

The Identity Theft Resource Center is a nonprofit organization established to support victims of identity theft and educate consumers on issues involving identity theft. Visit www.idtheftcenter.org. — Linda Foley, founder, Identity Theft Resource Center

Linda, as always, you and your organization provide invaluable consumer information for my readers. Folks, tear this column out right now and post it on the refrigerator, and check out the Web site. — Heloise

Dear Heloise: If your dining table is the kind that pulls apart to add sections, I developed a slick way to cut shelf paper. Mark with a pencil, on each side of the paper, where you want to cut. Slightly separate the table, then line up the pencil marks over the open slit. With a single-edge razor blade, zip across through the slit. — Leilani, via e-mail

Dear Heloise: To fill a pepper mill in no time flat, use a pastry bag without a tip. — Mary, 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 Heloise@Heloise.com. I can't answer your letter personally but will use the best hints received in my column. © King Features Syndicate Inc.