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updated 3/14/2011 2:14:10 PM ET 2011-03-14T18:14:10

With their catchy jingles, the commercials for credit-reporting companies have consumers paying attention to the importance of regular credit checks.  Although credit and identity theft experts don’t encourage the use of those services (they really aren’t free, despite the names), they agree that the message behind the commercials should be heeded by everyone: Regular credit checks are vital to keeping your identity and your credit score safe.

“Your credit report is Ground Zero when it comes to identity theft,” said John Ulzheimer, president of consumer education for Smartcredit.com and a member of the board of advisers for IdentityTheft911. “Generally, the asset being attacked is the consumer’s access to apply for and get credit.  Identity thieves are trying to open up an account in your name or get cash advances without the responsibility of making the payments.”

There are two forms of credit fraud , according to Ulzheimer. One is “true name fraud,” which is when the thief opens an account in the consumer’s name. The second form is account takeover, in which the thief somehow gets access to the consumer’s account and uses it to make purchases.

Smart thieves, Ulzheimer added, attack slowly, usually making charges of under $50 that they hope go unnoticed  – and often consumers who have three- or four-page credit card statements do fail to spot the extra charges. The amount of purchases increases over  time, and once the consumer notices, the damage is done and repairing personal credit and restoring identity becomes a lengthy and difficult battle.

“The consumer is considered guilty until proven innocent,” Ulzheimer said.

So what are the best ways to protect yourself from credit card fraud?  Ulzheimer and John Sileo, a privacy expert who owns thinklikeaspy.com, offer the following tips:

  • Examine every credit card statement closely and investigate any charge that seems incorrect.
  • Sign up to receive free credit reports from the three credit agencies through the Federal Trade Commission site AnnualCreditReport.com.  Consumers are allowed one free report per agency each year; Sileo recommends staggering the reports from the three agencies so one arrives every four months.
  • Don’t panic if something seems amiss on the credit report. Ulzheimer said many store credit cards look unfamiliar because they are listed by the name of a bank or parent company.
  • Contact credit companies the moment you can prove there is illegal activity on your cards or in your report.  Cancel cards that have been hijacked, and alert credit agencies to the fraud.

Is there ever a time to use a paid credit monitoring service?  Yes, said Sileo.

“If your identity had been stolen in the past or you are not vigilant about checking your credit information, you should consider signing up for a monitoring service,” he said. For about $20 a month, the company will track the activity on your credit cards numbers and other personal identifying numbers and report unusual activity.

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