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To spot identity theft, monitor credit scores, bank and credit card data

Has your financial data been stolen?

Sebastian Kaulitzki/

When Derrick Forster returned from vacation two years ago, he had a disturbing telephone message awaiting him.

It seemed someone had stolen his credit card information and racked up more than $1,000 worth of electronics and clothing purchases.

"I got a call from my bank, and they said: 'It looks like somebody has breached your identity. It looks like someone has used your credit card,"' recalls the 52-year-old Toronto small business owner.

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"Digging a little further, they said, 'It looks like someone stole your identity."'

The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre says it received more than 19,000 identity fraud reports, totalling $11.1 million in estimated losses in 2013. The number of cases was up from more than 17,000 reported in 2012, although the overall loss total was down from an estimated $16.6 million that year.

Forster said the credit company paid for the losses, but he now stays vigilant by tracking his credit report on a real-time basis.

Last December, the issue of identity theft came to the forefront after discount retailer Target revealed that the personal details of tens of millions of customers had been stolen in a massive security breach in the pre-holiday shopping season.

Hackers took about 40 million debit and credit card numbers, and email addresses, phone numbers, names and home addresses of another 70 million people. The company later offered a year of free credit monitoring for Canadian customers who visited U.S. Target stores between Nov. 27 and Dec. 15.

John Russo with Equifax, the firm contracted to provide the credit monitoring, said the service alerts clients in real-time via email, or text message if someone has applied for credit under their name. This can include everything from new credit cards, lines of credit or car leases.

"It helps you be vigilant," said Russo, vice-president, legal counsel and chief privacy officer for Equifax Canada.

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"It lets you act on it before the collection agency calls to tell you that you've defaulted on a loan taken out by Joe Fraudster."

Credit scores range between 300 to 900 and are used by banks and other institutions to determine liability when lending credit. The three-digit number is based on a calculation of a variety of factors including the frequency of late credit card and cellphone payments, how long the cards have been held and how often they're used.

Such information, which is managed by two main companies in Canada — Equifax and TransUnion — can also be minimally impacted each time a credit file is pulled for an inquiry, like for a mortgage application.

The median credit score hovers around 675, with anything above 650 considered to be "low risk" by institutions.

Russo said the best way to ensure a good credit score is to always pay the minimum due on all credit cards each month. It's also a good idea to close down all credit cards or lines of credit that are not regularly used.

For instance, companies will view it a liability if a consumer has $200,000 worth of available credit even if the full amount is not used. It's also a good idea to settle all outstanding legal judgments, including fines from small claims courts or unpaid traffic tickets.

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Russo said credit scores can be improved almost immediately if consumers begin to take those steps.

The Financial Consumer Agency of Canada recommends that Canadians regularly check their bank and credit card statements and order their credit reports twice a year to ensure accuracy.

"People look at your credit score or credit report when you're looking at getting a loan, applying for a credit card, applying for a job or applying to rent something," said Julie Hauser, a spokesperson for the independent agency.

Consumers can get their credit scores for free if they call or write Equifax or TransUnion, or can access it online for around $15.

Those in Ontario and Manitoba can also sign up for a service with the companies to contact them each time someone tries to take out credit in their name.

In addition to the monitoring options, Hauser said the best way to protect your identity and credit information is prevention.

The agency recommends that all personal information, like documents containing social insurance numbers and banking information, be shredded and properly disposed of.

Consumers should also be wary about sharing personal information over the telephone or through email.

Hauser said if bank or credit card information must be entered into a website, people should ensure that it is a secured site that begins with https:// or has a padlock in the url box.

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