Identity Thieves Target Mailboxes

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Identity theft is big business, and nothing is sacred to those awful identity thieves -- not even the U.S. mail. They try to trap you via email come-ons and they might fraudulently charge things to your credit cards, and they may even be lurking at your mailbox.

There are always goodies to be found in your mail, such as financial account statements, but this time of year is especially tempting.

That's because your W-2 form and 1099 forms and other important documents are arriving in time for your tax-return preparation, and they often contain valuable personal information, such as your Social Security number, your earnings, your various account balances, and, importantly, where you do your banking and investing.

Think about it. Clearly, a Social Security number is extremely valuable. But if someone is going to pretend to be you, it can help them immensely to have other details -- either so that they know what accounts to tackle, or in order to better impersonate you. They'll know what bank or brokerage to take your Social Security number to, for example, as they try to get at your money. Or they may be able to apply for credit in your name with some of this information. The government has estimated that about 1 in 14 Americans aged 16 and up have been identity-theft targets or victims.

What to do
Fortunately, you're not completely at their mercy. There are some steps you can take to minimize chances of identity theft or other headaches. For maximum security, deny access to your mailbox. You can get one with a lock, or perhaps rent a box at your local post office.

If you've moved in the past year, make sure that the financial institutions serving you have your new address and file a change of address form with the post office, too.

Stay on top of your financial documents. Make a list of all your accounts and the forms that you're expecting to receive. Most will be arriving in February, but some might arrive later, and even ones that arrive early might be followed by a corrected version later. Check them off as they arrive, and contact any institutions whose documents have not arrived. Some banks or brokerages might just be running late, or a piece of mail may have innocently gotten lost en route to you, or perhaps it was intercepted by a scammer. Keep an eye on any accounts where you have any suspicion of foul play.

Keep in mind
Developing good habits with financial forms can not only foil criminals, but it can make your life easier in other ways. For example, know that the IRS gets the information on your 1099 forms, too. So if you don't report income from one of them, which is easy to do if a form never arrived or got misplaced, Uncle Sam might think you're trying to pull a fast one. And if you spot errors on any forms, look into getting them fixed as soon as possible.

And finally, know that you're not alone. The IRS itself doesn't like identity theft (many tax refunds are stolen by identity theft) and has proposed having our tax identification numbers (such as Social Security numbers) truncated on some tax-related forms. Stay tuned for more progress in the fight against identity theft.

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Selena Maranjian

Selena Maranjian has been writing for the Fool since 1996 and covers basic investing and personal finance topics. She also prepares the Fool's syndicated newspaper column and has written or co-written a number of Fool books. For more financial and non-financial fare (as well as silly things), follow her on Twitter...

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