Longform

Money for Nothing

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Just having a criminal use your personal information at all can be a big problem, even if the crook doesn't use the data to steal anything. If police have an arrest warrant with your name on it, you could be arrested the next time you are pulled over for speeding.

Sergeant Davis says he talked to a woman who found out the thief using her identity had caused police to issue multiple warrants for her arrest. Phoenix police had her come down for fingerprinting, then gave her a letter saying she wasn't the wanted criminal who was using her name, date of birth, and Social Security number.

If you are arrested falsely in a case like that — even if you've joined a service company like LifeLock — you'll still have a negative experience to remember.

At a news conference in June, Phoenix police brought out printers, other document-making equipment, and hundreds of checks that came from a single bust of identity theft suspects. The suspects were using personal information from new victims to alter the checks, stolen from a bank vehicle in 2004, in an attempt to cash them.

"There's no foolproof way to stop this," Tipsword says.

So the best advice is: Don't fall prey to identify-protection scams.

Chances are you'll never be targeted by identity thieves. And if you are, there's next to nothing an identity-protection firm could've done to prevent it. Or much it could do to help you solve the problem that you couldn't easily do yourself — at little to no expense.


DIY: FRAUD ALERTS

Placing a fraud alert tells someone loaning money in your name to call you first. Drawback: Might delay an impulsive credit purchase.

Here's how to do it:
Call 1-888-397-3742

This is the number for Experian, one of the major credit reporting bureaus. They'll report the fraud alert to other bureaus.

Calling this number gives you automated options. Here's what to do:
Press 2 (you don't want the "free" offer),
Press 3 (you want the fraud stuff, not more sales offers),
Press 2 (to place an alert),
Press 1 (for initial 90-day fraud alert).
Getting to this stage takes approximately 1 minute; then you punch in your personal identification numbers.

TO GET YOUR CREDIT REPORT
Super-easy and free process: www.annualcreditreport.com
or call 1-877-322-8228

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.