NOAA
A tornado near Anadarko, Okla., in 1999.
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updated 5/23/2011 7:14:31 PM ET 2011-05-23T23:14:31

It happens every year. As winter melts into spring and spring heats into summer, much of America is affected by weather-related disasters.

Right now much of the South and Midwest is reeling from tornado or flood damage. Wildfires have hit parts of the Southwest. Soon enough, the Eastern Seaboard and the Gulf Coast will be under hurricane watches.

Natural disasters frequently leave an amazing amount of devastation in their wake, forcing many victims to start rebuilding their lives from scratch. Loss of personal documents only complicates relationships with federal agencies and other disaster-relief agencies.

That's why the Identity Theft Resource Center (ITRC) recommends taking a few minutes to create an action plan to ensure you have access to important paperwork and to help avoid potential identity theft.

"You want to make sure you have photocopies of all of your important documents," said Linda Foley, founder and chairman of the San Diego-based IRTC. "Keep originals in one place, like a safe deposit box at the bank, and copies in a portable locked box that you can take with you if you have to evacuate."

That lockbox or portable safe should also include copies of everything in that's in your wallet, from your driver’s license to sentimental photographs.

Foley said that if someone is carrying documents in his or her wallet, then those documents are valuable, whether financially or emotionally.

"If the wallet is stolen or lost," she explained, the lockbox will ensure that "you still have copies of its contents."

Criminals like to take advantage of victims during disasters. Looting can be a major problem in areas struck by tornadoes, and scam artists often show up with promises to rebuild your property.

Foley added that disaster victims should also be wary of phishing scams from con artists pretending to represent a company that has lost your personal data.

Foley and the ITRC provided tips on how to best prepare to protect your personally identifiable information in case a natural disaster hits your area.

— Buy a sturdy, portable lock box that can hold the following documents: birth, marriage and death certificates, copies of driver’s licenses, passports, medical and insurance information, Social Security cards, important legal documents such as immigration or adoption papers, and current photos of members of the household.

The box should be kept in a safe part of the home. In case of an evacuation, it should be the last thing to go into the car before you leave.

—  Make copies of all important documents, and keep the copies separate from the originals.

“Even banks get destroyed in disasters, and you may not be able to access the original documents,” Foley said.

—  Save important computer files on a portable hard drive or on a secure cloud backup server. Foley suggested removing hard drives from computers and taking them with you during evacuations, but that takes technical skills that not everyone has. Portable hard drives are inexpensive, hold a computer’s worth of data and fit easily into a purse.

—  Have a hard copy of important phone numbers readily available. This includes phone numbers of credit card companies, insurance agencies and family members. Many people depend on cell phones to store all their contact information, but they can’t be accessed if the batteries run down and there is no electricity (or if the phone charger was left behind).

—  If you aren’t able to evacuate before floodwaters rise, Foley recommended putting documents in a plastic food storage bag and taping it to your body. The bag will keep the documents dry, and taping the bag to your body will keep you from losing it.

In the wake of a tornado, flood, fire or hurricane, it's hard enough to pick up the physical pieces.  Make sure you don’t have to rebuild your identity as well.

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