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Guarding your good name

Protect Your Identity Week offers classes, info and free shredding.

By Donna_Freedman Oct 15, 2010 12:28PM
Almost 10 million Americans were victims of identity theft fraud in 2008, according to the Federal Trade Commission. Apparently you can't be too careful: 16% of the victims knew the person who had committed the crime -- and 6% of the time it was a family member.

How can you avoid being ripped off?

The third annual Protect Your Identity Week is a good start. Oct. 17-23, you can avail yourself of:
  • Document shredding.
  • Cell phone recycling.
  • Credit report reviews.
  • Short seminars such as "Avoid Scams and Fraud," "Protect Your Identity," "Keeping Your ID Safe on the Internet" and "Get Smart About Credit."
All programs are free but topics vary from state to state. Use this map to find what's available in your region.

The cell phone recycling is new this year, according to Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling. The NFCC and the Better Business Bureau are the main sponsors of the week's activities.

Recycling is a green thing to do, but Protect Your Identity Week has another reason to focus on mobiles. Many people now store banking and other personal information on their phones, Cunningham says. And when they upgrade to a new unit, they might just toss the old one in the trash or in the "e-cycle" bin at work -- without removing potentially sensitive data.

That's why the NFCC website offers this link to step-by-step instructions and a how-to video for people who want to wipe data from a phone before recycling or donating it.

All handsets collected next week will be sent to the Wireless Alliance, a cell phone recycling company in Boulder, Colo. Older units will be melted down for the metal. Newer ones will be refurbished and resold -- but first they'll be wiped clean, says company spokesman Andrew Bates.

To shred or not to shred?

Cintas Security Management, the weeklong event's "shredding partner," will destroy your old documents for free next week. This link will help you find the location nearest you.

If you're in Irvine, Calif., Cherry Hill, N.J., or Southfield, Mich., on Oct. 23, you can help Cintas try to beat the Guinness World Record for the most paper shredded in a 24-hour period.

What records should you pitch and which should you keep? It depends. Some documents can be deep-sixed in as little as one year. Others should be kept permanently. For specifics, see "Purge your paperwork" by MSN Money columnist Liz Pulliam Weston.

The shredded documents will be sent to regional recyclers. Cintas spokeswoman Kim Syrios notes that a ton of recycled paper can generate 6,870 rolls of toilet paper.

One week won't do it

Protect Your Identity Week is a great start. But it's not enough, so don't get complacent.

As columnist Weston pointed out in "Guard your ID: Shredding's a start," personal vigilance can do only so much. Destroying old documents, guarding online accounts, installing anti-spyware and anti-virus software, locking away your Social Security card, and being discreet on social media -- all of these are smart things to do.

But by themselves, they're not enough to protect us.

"Some of the biggest threats to your identity lie beyond your control -- in the big databases of your personal financial information that companies gather, sell and often fail to protect," Weston wrote.

For now, we do what we can do -- and that includes calling on legislators to enact some of the safeguards that Weston suggests.

Until these changes are made, take steps to protect yourself.

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