First, the bad news: There's still plenty of identity theft out there. Now, the better news: There's not as much as in previous years.
And now, the best news: You can do a lot to protect yourself from being victimized.
If you're not familiar with the concept of identity theft, it basically involves someone getting some pieces of information about you -- name, Social Security number, credit card numbers, "pre-approved" credit card offers -- and using this data to make purchases or withdraw funds from your accounts.
In 2006, some 8.4 million Americans were hit by identity fraud -- but that's half a million fewer victims than the year before, according to a study conducted by Javelin Strategy and Research.
The study also found that, in 2006, the average victim of an existing account fraud paid $587, out of pocket, in consumer costs associated with the fraud, while victims of new accounts opened in their name paid, on average, $617.
The overall decline in identity theft may indicate that more people are acting to protect themselves -- but the average cost per person shows that fraud victims still can get hurt. How can you reduce the chances of being victimized by identity theft? Here are some suggestions:
* Shield your credit card from prying eyes and ears. Thieves can now use camera cell phones to take photos of your credit cards while you're making purchases. Don't pull your credit card out from your wallet or purse until the moment you're going to use it, and put it away after it's used. If you're making a contribution over the phone to a political or non-profit group, don't give out your credit card number unless you're sure the organization is legitimate.
* Use secure sites when shopping online. Before giving out your credit card number to make a purchase on the Internet, make sure you're on a secure site -- one that begins with https://. (The "s" stands for "secure.") Also, the site should display a small lock or other security seal.
* Shred those documents. If you are purging old investment statements, tax returns and bank documents, use a shredder. And while you have the shredder out, use it on pre-approved credit card offers.
* Go "virtual." Try to replace paper statements -- from banks, financial services providers and credit card issuers -- with online versions. Many businesses will be quite happy to save the cost and expense of mailing account statements to you.
* Check your bank statements. Whether you get your bank statements online or on paper, check them at least a few times a month. If you find a transaction that looks unfamiliar or questionable, call your bank to find out more details.
* Get your credit report annually -- To request a copy of your credit report, you can call the three main credit bureaus: Equifax (1-800-685-1111), Experian (1-888-397-3742) and Trans Union (1-800-888-4213). Check your report closely for "surprises" or unaccounted activity.
* Guard your personal information. Don't carry around your Social Security card in your wallet. In fact, unless it's truly necessary, as when you're filing official papers, don't give out your Social Security number. Also, change the PIN number on your cash card once in a while.
Identity thieves are clever -- so do whatever it takes to keep them out of your life.