When someone steals your identity, you might not even know it until strange things begin to happen in your life. You may discover, for example, that all the money has been mysteriously withdrawn from your savings account. You might receive a speeding ticket summons in the mail but remember you were home sick with a bad cold that whole week.

Identity Theft Defined

Identity theft is the unauthorized use of your personal information.
Identity theft is the unauthorized use of your personal information.

The Wall Street Journal reports that according to the Federal Trade Commission, about 3 percent of the U.S. population falls victim to identity theft. That’s about 9 million people. Identity theft is the unauthorized use of personal information, such as your name, date of birth, Social Security number, address, phone number, credit account numbers, banking information, birth certificate, driver’s license or anything else that identifies you. Signs of identity theft include failure to receive bills, payments or other notices that usually come in the mail. An unrecognized address, account or outstanding judgment may appear on your credit report. You may begin receiving calls from banking or other agency fraud departments regarding purchases or charges that you did not make.

How Identity Theft Can Happen to You

When you buy your first car, an unscrupulous dealership clerk could make a copy of your car loan application and pass your information on to an outside accomplice who then applies for a driver's license in your name. You are unaware of this until months later, when you receive a summons to appear in court for a traffic violation that you didn't commit.

Credit Card Fraud Explained

Credit card fraud involves using your account for unauthorized purchases.
Credit card fraud involves using your account for unauthorized purchases.

Credit card fraud is a subclass of identity theft and involves the use of one or more of your credit cards to make unauthorized purchases in person or online. It also includes any application for a credit card account made in your name without your permission.

What’s in Your Trash?

Shred papers with personal information and cut up expired credit cards.
Shred papers with personal information and cut up expired credit cards.

If you toss unopened junk mail into a garbage bag and put it out for the morning pickup, someone can go through your trash. That person could find several preapproved credit card offers and complete the applications using an alternative address. In a few weeks, you begin receiving calls from the fraud department at a nearby bank regarding purchases you did not make.

Proactive Vigilance

The proactive approach to preventing identity theft is simply to be careful -- careful where you buy, with what you throw away and especially careful what you post online. Check your privacy settings on Facebook, MySpace and other social networking venues and make sure you aren't sharing too much information. The FTC publishes the annual Consumer Sentinel Network Data Book, which reports a continually increasing trend in identity theft. Just one piece of personal information in a thief’s hands can open the door to a nightmare. Weeks or months may pass before you‘re even aware that your identity has been stolen, and you may spend years clearing your record. Immediately report any unusual activity to your family, bank, creditors and the fraud departments of the top three credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. The sooner you recognize and report the signs of identity theft and credit card fraud, the sooner you can seek resolution.