While you’re out shopping here in Wentzville during the holiday season, I’d like to remind you to protect yourself and your identity. During the holidays, in addition to spending more money, we tend to be busier, more stressed and more distracted than other times of the year. Identity thieves take advantage of our distraction by secretly stealing our identities. Nothing takes the joy out of the season faster than being an identity theft victim.

Identity theft occurs when someone uses your name, Social Security number, date of birth or other identifying information, without permission, to commit fraud. For example, someone could open up a credit card or get a loan using your information. If you react quickly, you can prevent more damage. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) suggests that you take these three steps as soon as possible:

1. Place an initial fraud alert: Ask one of the three credit reporting companies to put a fraud alert on your credit report; they are required to inform the other two companies. An initial fraud alert can make it harder for an identity thief to open more accounts in your name. The alert lasts 90 days, but you can renew it.

2. Order your credit reports: Now that you’ve set up an initial fraud alert, you’re entitled to a free credit report from each of the three credit reporting companies. A free annual report is a great option – even if you haven’t been the victim of identity theft.

3. Create an identity theft report: An identity theft report gives you some important rights that can help you recover from the theft. To create one, file a complaint with the FTC and print an identity theft affidavit. Use the affidavit to file a police report and to create your Identity Theft Report.

It can be devastating and stressful to deal with identity theft. To help lessen the threat, here are some simple ways to protect yourself during this busy shopping season.

1. Use your credit card: Limit your use of checks and debit cards. When you use either of these, the money is taken directly from your bank account. If fraud does occur, it can be much harder and time-consuming to get the money refunded. Credit cards generally give you a longer period to catch the fraud before you are held liable.

2. Leave your purse at home: For women, take a wallet that fits in your coat pocket and leave your purse at home. Forty percent of all identity theft occurs when a purse is stolen. If you must take a purse, use a cross-body style that zips.

3. Watch your statements: Frequently monitor your financial statements to help catch theft immediately. Most banks offer account alerts that you can set up online to notify you of unusual spending.

Identity theft can be expensive, not to mention a hassle. You don’t want to spend your time during and after the holidays on the phone with credit bureaus and credit card companies. So, take the steps necessary to protect yourself!