What I learned when thieves stole my identity
The first sign that something was wrong seemed harmless: A new Dell credit card arrived in my mail one afternoon.

More landed in the mailbox the next day.

Macy's. Bloomingdale's. Crate and Barrel. Radio Shack. Then later: Visa Sony, Toys R Us and Lowe's cards turned up.

I didn't request any of these cards. My first call to Dell revealed what I suspected.

Someone had applied for a credit card using my name.

I felt violated and vulnerable. Then, it hit me: I've become a statistic, a victim of identity theft.

A thief had taken my name, my credit and my identity and managed to spend more than $8,000 (money that, I'm grateful, I didn't have to pay).

I still don't know who the culprit was or how it happened.

All I know is that if this happened to me — a Sun Sentinel consumer affairs and watchdog reporter — it can happen to anybody.

Thieves move quickly
Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the United States, according to the Federal Trade Commission, which enforces identity theft laws. Experts estimate 10 million Americans become victims of identity fraud each year. Last year, businesses lost $56.6 billion to ID theft, the commission said.

I've spent hours on the phone talking to fraud investigators, credit bureaus and bank staff as I've tried to sort out the mess that is now mine to clean up. I was exhausted every time a call ended.

Individual investigations, conducted by fraud departments for each of the credit card companies that issued accounts in my name, took months to complete before concluding I was a victim of ID fraud.

But there is a bright side to this story. I thought I knew how to protect myself. But what I've learned through this experience has taught me that you can never be too careful.

I also learned some hard lessons along the way about how best to safeguard my personal information in the future — and respond, if my identity is targeted again.

Lesson 1: Take action
Be suspicious if credit cards that you never applied for start arriving in your mailbox. Creating new accounts with someone else's name is the most prevalent form of ID theft, experts say.

In 2007, 57 percent of ID theft victims reported their personal information was used to open a new line of credit in their names, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit consumer-advocacy organization based in San Diego.

Don't hesitate to contact the bank, report the irregularity and close the account immediately. Chances are that someone went shopping on your behalf using the new account before you discovered the situation.

As I began calling credit card companies to report the crime, I discovered that the ID thieves had made several online purchases at Macy's, Office Max, Dell and Visa. A total of 10 cards were issued using my name and four were used to make purchases. The culprits also opened bank accounts online with Bank of America.

I take only a little comfort knowing that I might have stopped the thief or thieves from spending more money in my name, by using the other cards or the Bank of America accounts.