You don't have to spend $100 to $200 a year to defend yourself from identity theft at the level of protection that a paid service offers. You can do almost everything the services do, for free. But following these steps will require time and effort.
1. Get a free copy of your credit report by visiting AnnualCreditReport.com. Don't be fooled by look-alike sites that promise free reports if you subscribe to their credit-monitoring services. Better yet, order by phone at 877-322-8228.
2. For DIY credit monitoring, order a free report every three months from a different bureau. Scan the report for unfamiliar information, such as accounts you don't remember opening.
3. Place a fraud alert on your credit report by calling one of the credit bureaus. (You can find contact information for all three bureaus by browsing to Fight Identity Theft.)
4. Put a recurring event in your online calendar to remind you to renew your fraud alert in 90 days.
5. Tell the bureaus to stop selling your information to credit services, by calling 888/567-8688 or visiting OptOutPrescreen.com. Doing so will reduce but not eliminate the number of preapproved credit card offers you receive.
6. Request a free public records report from ChoicePoint. You'll have to print a form and mail it, along with copies of your driver's license and proof of address. Scan the report for addresses and other details not related to you.
7. Take your name off other marketing lists by signing up for ProQuo.com's free service. In some instances, you may have to mail letters or navigate to a marketer's own site to complete your opt-out request.
8. Buy a mailbox that locks, or use a post office box. This will help prevent thieves from stealing your identity via paper mail.
9. Buy a crosscut paper shredder and shred junk mail to frustrate dumpster-diving identity thieves.
10. Never click a link from an e-mail message to log in to your bank or to any other financial institution. Type the secure site's address into your browser, bookmark it, and use that link to access your accounts. Otherwise, you risk having your identity stolen by phishers.
11. If you believe that you are a victim of identity theft, contact the Identity Theft Resource Center. Volunteers there can walk you through the process of restoring your identity.
12. Get educated. Mari Frank's IdentityTheft.org, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, and the Federal Trade Commission maintain huge libraries of information on how to avoid being victimized, and what to do if it has already happened.
This story, "DIY identity-theft protection: A 12-step program" was originally published by PCWorld.