(ARA) - Nearly 251,000 identity theft-related complaints were made to the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2010. So it's no surprise that - for the 11th straight year - identity theft ranks No. 1 as the biggest concern among consumers.

The FTC says as many as 9 million U.S. residents' identities are stolen each year. The most common types of identity theft involved criminals stealing information to apply for federal benefits such as Social Security, and lifting credit card data to make millions of dollars in unauthorized purchases. Thieves harvest information by raiding mailboxes, Dumpster diving, picking wallets and hacking into personal data over the Internet.

Americans make it far too easy for identity thieves, according to Charles Valinotti, senior vice president with insurer QBE. "Victims are usually left with a bad credit rating, which may take years to repair," he says. "Just the process of restoring your good name could cost thousands of dollars."

Here are six tips to help avoid becoming the next identity fraud victim:

1. Foil the Dumpster divers. Shred all old bank and credit statements and "junk mail" credit card offers before trashing them. "This can be time-consuming and inconvenient," Valinotti says, "but not nearly as much as having to deal with an empty bank account or credit card charges you didn't make."

2. Guard your Social Security number. Don't have it printed on your checks or any other document available to the public.

3. Regularly monitor your credit report. Make sure the information it contains is accurate. If possible, sign up for a service that lets you know if someone is applying for credit in your name.

4. Don't carry extra credit cards or other identity documents, except when needed. Make a photocopy of all the items you carry in your wallet, especially your driver's license and credit cards. That way, you'll have all account numbers, expiration dates and phone numbers if your wallet or purse is stolen.

5. Never give a credit card number or personal information over the phone unless you initiated the call. Examine charges on your credit card statements before paying them. "Take bill payments and checks to the post office for mailing," Valinotti advises. "They can be easily stolen from a home or street mailbox."

6. Check with your homeowner's insurance provider to see if it offers identity fraud protection. This insurance provides coverage for expenses you incur as a direct result of identity fraud, such as notary costs, certified mail, loan application charges, attorney fees and lost income from time taken off work.

Valinotti says a little caution and care go a long way in protecting your identity. "We want to see identity theft lose its ranking as the most serious consumer issue," he says.Six tips to keep identity theft in check
Category: Business