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(Fred Lum)
(Fred Lum)

Personal Finance Tips

Seven steps to thwart identity thieves Add to ...

In case you didn't have enough reasons to dislike January - the cold, grey weather, the post-holiday bills - here's another: January is a common time for identity theft.

The first month of the year is the beginning of tax season, when the Canada Revenue Agency starts mailing tax packages and banks and brokers begin sending out investment statements. Adam Levin, chairman and co-founder of Identity Theft 911, says these documents, which contain private, personal information, often sit unguarded in our mailboxes and are prized by identity thieves.

"If it's a tax summary, oftentimes it comes with your personal identifying information, not only your name and address, but in many cases your social insurance number," says Mr. Levin, adding that's all thieves need to steal your identity.

"It's way too much information. It's out there, it's available. It's in an easily accessible public area, which is your mailbox. Unless you have a slot in your door, unless you have a locking mailbox, it's out there."

Thieves will go to great lengths to get at private mail, including stealing postal boxes, Mr. Levin says.

"Oftentimes, they'll just float through the neighbourhoods at the time of the day when they expect few people to be around. In some cases, they follow the mailmen. We've also seen cases where they've stolen mail trucks."

While we can't stand guard over our mailboxes all the time, Mr. Levin has some practical advice for avoiding identity theft.

1. Pick up your mail daily

The worst thing you can do is let important documents sit in an unlocked mailbox overnight, Mr. Levin says. If you're planning to be away from home for an extended period, have Canada Post hold your mail or have a trusted neighbour collect it as it arrives.

2. Keep track of important documents

Write down every piece of information-rich mail you anticipate receiving and mark it off when it arrives. If important documents such as your tax-filing package or financial statements don't arrive, contact the sender immediately. CRA spokesman Philippe Brideau said tax-filing packages have already been mailed and most Canadians should have received them by now.

3. Choose electronic delivery

If possible, have financial documents sent by e-mail. As long as your computer has adequate security, electronic delivery is usually safer than a mailbox, Mr. Levin says.

4. Monitor your financial transactions

Don't wait until the end of month to see your financial statements. Go online every day and check your bank and credit card accounts to ensure all of the listed transactions are legitimate. "That's really important," Mr. Levin says. "You can save yourself an enormous amount of time and agony."

5. Check your credit report

By February or March, order your credit reports from TransUnion and Equifax so you can see whether there are any new accounts that you didn't apply for. If there are, that's a red flag for fraud.

6. Get a paper shredder

Recycling bins are another place identity thieves can easily steal your personal information. To be on the safe side, shred any documents that contain your name and address before you dispose of them.

7. Consider doing some damage control

There are many companies that offer identity theft insurance or credit fraud monitoring. Also, some insurance companies and banks offer complimentary protection services to customers, so shop around, Mr. Levin says.

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