Linda Geist

MEXICO, Mo. – Don’t let an identity thief steal the sparkle out of your holiday season.

Identity theft is when someone steals your personal information and uses it without permission. It can damage your finances, credit history and reputation. “Identity theft can wreck your life,” says University of Missouri Extension family financial education specialist Virgil Woolridge.

Identity thieves often prey on older people, he says. With more than 15 percent of the state’s population age 65 or older, Missouri is a winter wonderland of would-be victims. Thieves often find their victims through listed telephone numbers for landlines.

Identity thieves can be strangers or people you know, Woolridge says. Strangers may call on the telephone and ask for information about Social Security numbers, bank accounts or credit cards. They may solicit information through official-looking letters or obtain information by intercepting your mail.

Safeguarding your identity is like buckling your seat belt or locking your door at night—it’s a habit you practice to reduce risk.

Woolridge recommends the following:

• Check your credit reports at least once a year, and more frequently if you suspect a problem. You can get a free credit report annually from or by calling 1-877-322-8228.

• Make photocopies of your credit cards, front and back, and put in a secure location.

• Use strong passwords on your computer.

• Be sure to use a reputable tax preparer. Your income tax information contains a large amount of data that an identity thief could use.

• Don’t give your financial information to a paid caregiver. Do not have them make your bank deposits. Safeguard credit reports, tax returns, bank and credit statements, Social Security cards and your date of birth.

• Review your bank account and billing statements monthly for unauthorized charges. Check with the creditor if you don’t receive a bill when expected. Sometimes identity thieves will request a change of address for your bills.

• Check on calls from debt collectors for debts that aren’t yours.

• Shred sensitive documents.

If you suspect your identity has been stolen, place an initial fraud alert on your credit report immediately by calling one of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies: Equifax, 800-525-6285; Experian, 888-397-3742; or TransUnion at 800-680-7289. Also file a report with the Federal Trade Commission at or 877-ID-THEFT (877-438-4338).

For more information from MU Extension on frauds and scams, go to