At least nine million times a year someone has his or her identity stolen. According to the federal government it is the fastest growing crime in our country. Victims of identity theft may not be able to obtain and use credit cards. They may not be able to obtain a loan. Victimization may even result in the cable or phone service being shut off. As incredible as it seems some forms of mistaken identity can expose the victim to criminal prosecution. The thief begins by stealing and using personal identifying information, such as names, credit card numbers, financial information, social security numbers, even a name.

Here are some of the ways information is stolen.

1. Dumpster - The thief finds discarded bills and other personal documents that contain useful information.

2. Skimming - Special storage devices are used to steal your credit/debit card numbers.

3. Phishing - Victims receive unsolicited spam or pop-up messages that appear to be from legitimate financial institutions or companies and attempt to get the victim to reveal personal information.

4. Changing your Address - By filling a change of address form with the victim's creditor, the victims bills are sent to the thief's location.

5. Stealing - They steal anything and everything. From the mail pre-approved credit cards, credit card statements, new checks, and IRS information may be taken.

6. False Pretenses - The thieves obtain personal financial information by using false pretenses. Financial institutions, telephone companies and many other sources fall prey to their trickery daily. The FTC maintains a website to help victims.

What You Can DO:

Here is a summary of the things to do. Visit the following FTC web site for complete information: _ www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft/consumers/defend.html_

1. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports, and review your credit reports. Notify any of the three companies; it will help stop the thief. Transunion: 1-800-680-7289, www.transunion.com.; Equifax: 1-800-525-6285, www.equifax.com; Experian: 1-888-PERIAN(397-3742), www.experian.com. You only need to contact one of the three companies to place an alert.

Once you place the fraud alert in your file, you're entitled to order one free copy of your credit report from each of the three consumer reporting companies.

2. Close the accounts that you know or believe have been tampered with or opened fraudulently.

3. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission.

4. File a report with your local police or the police in the community where the identity theft took place.