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How to prevent identity theft, repair credit

Here are some tips on preventing identity theft and on repairing credit if you're a victim.

_Protect your Social Security number and don't carry it with you.

_Don't be conned by phony e-mails from banks, credit card or e-commerce companies asking for your personal financial data. Legitimate firms never ask over the Internet.

_Limit disclosure of your personal data by writing to your banks and mortgage broker to opt out of programs that exchange data.

_Install software to protect your computer from viruses and spies.

_Shop only at trustworthy Web sites.

_Review your bills and credit card statements, looking for unauthorized charges or withdrawals. Report them immediately.

Under a new federal law, by Sept. 1, residents of all states will be able to request free copies of their credit reports. The law goes into effect in stages. Residents of 24 states in the West, plus others covered by pre-existing state laws, can obtain free reports now; 10 Southern states join the list on June 1, followed by the Northeast three months later. Consumers will be entitled to one free report a year from each of the three major nationwide credit bureaus.

STATES WHERE REPORTS ARE ALREADY FREE UNDER THE NEW FEDERAL LAW: Alaska, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Mexico, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, South Dakota, Utah, Washington, Wisconsin, Wyoming.

FREE AS OF JUNE 1: Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas.

FREE AS OF SEPT. 1: Connecticut, Delaware, District of Columbia, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Virginia, West Virginia.

FREE NOW UNDER EXISTING STATE LAWS: Colorado, Georgia, Maine, Massachusetts, Maryland, New Jersey, Vermont. (Residents of these states must contact the three major credit bureaus directly until Sept. 1. They cannot use the all-in-one Web site and phone number listed below.)

WHERE TO GET YOUR CREDIT REPORTS: Equifax: 800-685-1111 or www.equifax.com; Experian: 888-397-3742 or www.experian.com; TransUnion: 800-888-4213 www.transunion.com. Residents of Western and Midwestern states can reach all three agencies at www.annualcreditreport.com or 877-322-8228. Residents of other states will be able to use that Web site and phone number once their states become eligible under the phased-in federal law.

Sources: Federal Trade Commission, California Department of Consumer Affairs and The Contra Costa Times.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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