updated 12/2/2008 7:07:21 PM ET 2008-12-03T00:07:21

They are almost too numerous to count. Your identity can be stolen under any number of circumstances and used in ways you probably never imagined. But there are also plenty of steps you can take to prevent or remedy identity theft. Below are five essential questions and answers you should know heading into the holiday shopping season.

1. How can identity thieves steal my personal data?

There are several ways identity thieves can steal your personal data, including:

  • Rummaging through your garbage for financial or other documents
  • Sending e-mail pretending to be a financial institution and asking for personal data (so-called phishing scams)
  • Storing ATM or credit card numbers with skimming devices that capture the numbers when cards are processed at store
  • Old-fashioned stealing — such as taking your purse or wallet

2. What can thieves do with a stolen identity?

On top of running up charges on a credit card, identity thieves may also use your personal information to get:

  • New credit cards
  • Wireless phone accounts
  • Cable
  • Utility services
  • Loan
  • Government benefits
  • Medical services

3. What should I do if my identity is stolen?

There are a few major steps you should take. They are:

  • Notify the three major credit bureaus — Experian, Equifax and TransUnion — so they can flag your credit report.
  • Notify any businesses where the thief used your personal data.
  • File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, which maintains a national database of complaints by identity theft victims to help law enforcement prosecute ID theft. The FTC can also give further guidance on how to restore your credit.
  • Consider filing a report with local police so you can provide a copy to creditors.

4. Should I file a police report if my identity is stolen?

Filing an identity theft report with the police will entitle you to certain legal rights, such as permanently blocking fraudulent information from the theft from appearing on your credit report.

You may not need to file a report with the police if you can work with companies to resolve any inaccurate information.

5. How long can the effects of identity theft last?

It depends on many factors including the type of theft, whether the thief is caught and if there are problems related to correcting your credit report.

You should monitor financial records for several months after discovering the crime. You should also review credit reports once every three months in the first year of the theft and once a year thereafter. You can request a free credit report at http://www.annualcreditreport.com.

Source: Federal Trade Commission, U.S. Department of Justice

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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