A stray letter could be enough for an identity thief to hijack your life.
If you want to be safe, grind those documents to dust, says Alison Brace
Has any of your mail gone missing recently? Should you worry? Well, yes.
Once upon a time the odd letter going astray was just one of those things, but these days, it should ring alarm bells. Identity theft is Britain's fastest growing crime, costing the UK economy pound;1.7 billion a year.
Just your name and address on a piece of paper in the recycling bin could provide enough information for an identity thief to raid your finances - and turn your life upside down.
If you become a victim, you might get your money back, but Equifax, a credit reference agency, estimates it can take up to 300 hours - that's eight full working weeks - to resolve a case. Yet a third of us throw away personal documents such as bank statements and receipts intact, according to a survey conducted by the Information Commissioner's Office last month.
A quarter of us don't check our statements for rogue transactions, and almost half of us use the same pin and password for different accounts.
"People are incredibly careless with their personal information," says Adam Laurie, an independent security consultant. "My policy is to destroy anything that has my name and address printed on it."
If you're not doing this, it's time to take action. Calculate the risk of your identity being stolen with checkmyfile.com. Keep documents such as your passport, driving licence and bank books in a safe place. Shred everything you don't need to keep - and that includes anything with company logos on them, and even unused credit card payment envelopes.
"All these things help an identity thief to build up a profile of you,"
says Adam, who is a director of The Bunker, a computer security company in Kent.
Not bought a shredder yet? The pound;50 Ryman MS 1001 was rated as the best all-rounder by a recent survey by Which? magazine. If you're feeling particularly paranoid, you could treat yourself to a cross-shredder. Or consider "dusting". Not with a feathered stick, you understand: a dusting machine, used by big companies and the military, literally grinds sensitive data to dust.
But, of course, it is not just paper that can open the door to the identity thief - there is your computer, the internet and the humble telephone.
Check your online security regularly - particularly if you use a wireless connection. Be wary of what information you allow to float around in cyberspace and what details you give out to cold-callers.
The workplace poses even more threats - particularly if you work in a large organisation such as a school. Pigeonholes for mail, shared computers, laptops, incoming post, outgoing recycling - these all provide no end of opportunities for the would-be identity thief.
Not that you should distrust your staffroom colleagues - but what about everyone who passes through a school on a daily basis?
Empty your pigeonhole daily and check with administrative staff what security is in place for protecting your personal information.
"Given that schools are dealing with a lot of sensitive information about children and staff, they should invest in a cross-shredder at the very least," says Adam.
It might be an idea to get a few copies of the new "personal information toolkit" for the staffroom. This is a step-by-step guide, which is produced by the Information Commissioner's Office, to protecting and managing your personal information. It is available from 08453 091091 or at www.ico.gov.uk.
If you do suspect another person of using your details, report it to the police immediately. You'll find more advice at the Home Office's dedicated web page: www.identity-theft.org.uk.
And if you are unlucky enough to be a victim, you can apply for protective registration with the UK's fraud prevention service, Cifas (www.cifas.org.uk) to stop it happening again.
So what does Adam do with his statements and bills. Shred? Dust? Even better.
"I burn everything in my wood-burning stove," he says. "It totally destroys everything - and it provides free heat."
So there you have it: an ethical answer to identity crime For advice on using your bank account and credit cards safely:
www.banksafeonline.org.ukwww.bba.org.uk (British Bankers' Association) www.cardwatch.org.uk
HOW TO AVOID IDENTITY THEFT
Don't use your mother's maiden name or place of birth as a security password.
Check your credit file annually for suspect applications: use www.uk.experian, www.equifax.co.uk, or www.callcredit.plc.uk. Never use the same password for more than one account. Don't carry details of your home address along with bank cards.
Shred or rip up post before throwing it in the bin.
If you move, ensure you pass on details about your change of address, and redirect your mail for a year.
Don't carry your driving licence unless you are hiring a car.
Source: Which? and checkmyfile.com
THE WARNING SIGNS
You receive bills or receipts for goods or services you have not ordered.
There are transactions on your bank statement that you do not recognise.
You receive confirmation letters for accounts in your name which you have never opened. Your passport, driving licence, utility bills or bank statements have gone missing. New accounts appear on your credit file.