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Originally published Monday, December 3, 2007 at 12:00 AM

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Silicon Valley view

Looks like ID protection is up to us

My identity has been stolen. Again. Last month, someone used my Visa credit card to buy three $29 video games on the PlayStation Network...

San Jose Mercury News

My identity has been stolen. Again. Last month, someone used my Visa credit card to buy three $29 video games on the PlayStation Network. As much as I like video games, it wasn't me.

Visa's fraud department was on the ball. They told me the three simultaneous purchases from a single vendor in a single day was an anomaly. It tipped them off and they checked with me. On the day the purchases were made, I happened to be out all day in San Francisco and was nowhere near my PS3.

I'm angry about this. But I'm not sure where to direct my wrath. Somebody somewhere lost control of my personal information and I have no idea how. That's the way it is for about half of the victims of identity theft. It can be as simple as someone using a lost card (which happened to my family last year) or having your identity stolen by hackers from a corporate database (as happened last year to millions of customers of TJX's retail properties, Marshalls and T.J. Maxx).

Visa had me fill out a paper form, and said they would notify me of the results of the investigation. Yeah, right.

There is a special angst you go through when someone steals your identity. You wonder what you should have done differently. Should we blame the victim?

I feel compelled to say that I'm not the easiest of targets. I change my passwords and use a variety of letters and numbers in them. I'm scared enough of free Wi-Fi wireless-networking sites that I don't use them and instead use cellphone modems when I'm on the run.

I've got a password protecting my own home Wi-Fi. I stay away from questionable Web sites and don't click on suspicious e-mails — including the fake greeting card e-mails the FBI just warned about. And, no, I never respond to those e-mail letters from Nigerians who want to wire me money.

Still, someone got to me and I've got to worry about what else they stole.

The statistics about identity theft are mind-boggling. According to Javelin Strategy and Research, there were 8.9 million victims of identity theft in 2006. Thieves made off with $56.6 billion, with the average fraud costing $6,278 per victim.

On Tuesday, the Federal Trade Commission said 8.3 million Americans experienced identity theft in 2005; of those, 3.2 million, or 1.4 percent of all adults, were hit with credit-card misuse.

President Bush set up a task force on identity theft in May 2006 because it was out of control. Some resulted from old-fashioned skimming of credit-card numbers by retail clerks. Others' identities got swept up in big cyberheists.

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What can you do when it happens? You can notify the credit bureaus, who can put a fraud alert on your identity or even put a freeze on your credit for a period of time. You can file a report with the police department, cancel compromised accounts and file a complaint with the FTC.

As a preventive, you can buy a shredder to head off Dumpster divers. (In fact, Staples has a whole marketing campaign built around how shredders can save you from identity theft). You can switch your bills to online only and monitor your accounts.

You can see where this is going. There are so many things you need to do to protect yourself that you don't have time to deal with them all. Some safeguards will cost you a lot of money.

On average, victims of identity theft spend 40 hours cleaning up their lives in the wake of it, according to the Javelin report. Some of the hardest hit wind up in bureaucratic hell.

I don't mean to scare you. But this has happened not only to me, twice, but to my mother and a number of my friends as well. That means it can happen to you. Make sure you do something to protect yourself. Because the people who are supposed to be protecting us clearly aren't doing enough. It just makes me sick.

Dean Takahashi

is a technology columnist

at the San Jose Mercury News.

Copyright © 2007 The Seattle Times Company

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