You toss old bills in the trash. You hand the store clerk your debit card. You quickly provide information during a phone call from your bank.

These everyday actions may seem fairly harmless. But, the events described here can all lead to identify theft. And, that’s a crime that’s occurring with increasing frequency.

In fact, ID theft now tops the list of complaints received by the Federal Trade Commission. And, for its victims, it can have distressing, serious consequences.

Their gain, your pain. The goal of identity thieves is to gather your personal information — and use it for their personal gain. For instance, they might:

•    Open a bank account in your name and then write bad checks
•    Clone your debit card and drain your bank account
•    Give your name to the police during an arrest

Their actions can be costly and could tarnish your credit. All of this can happen before you even realize there’s a problem.

Sneaky Schemes

Identity thieves use different tactics to get what they’re after, including:

Dumpster diving. They go through your trash looking for bills or other papers containing personal information.

Skimming. Using a special device, they steal credit or debit card numbers when your card is processed.

Phishing. They pretend to be a bank or government agency — and ask for information through emails or pop-up messages. This can also happen by “phishy” telephone calls.

Hacking. They hack into your email or online accounts to get to stored data.

Stealing. They snatch wallets, purses or mail — or take tax or personnel records from a home or business.

Fight back! Here are eight steps you can start taking now to make ID security a priority and a practice:

Today! Lock it down!

  1. Remove your Social Security card from your wallet. Store it, and all your personal information, in a secure place.
  2. Change weak passwords. Do you use your birth date or part of your address or phone number? That might be an easy code for a thief to crack. The strongest passwords combine upper- and lowercase letters, numbers and special characters.
  3. Make sure your home Wi-Fi network is password-protected. And, be careful how you use your devices at public hot spots. Most aren’t secure, which means any information you send is only protected if you’re on an encrypted website. To be sure a website is encrypted, look for “https” in the address before you log in or send any personal info.
  4. Start being more security-minded. For example, don’t click on links in unsolicited emails. And, don’t give out information over the phone or online unless you’ve verified the source.
  5. Keep your eye on debit and credit cards when paying for purchases. If anything seems out of the ordinary, be cautious using your card.
  6. Destroy and defend. Shred all paperwork with personal information before disposing of it. Get in the habit of doing this routinely with mail and sensitive material.
  7. Review bills and bank statements carefully for unusual transactions.
  8. Be sure to review your credit report regularly. This can help you recognize if your identity has been stolen. You can do this yourself for free or pay an identity theft protection company to monitor it for you.

And, keep your health insurance information private, too. Don’t share your member ID, username or password with anyone. And, regularly review your medical care benefits statements to make sure they are accurate, as well.

For more tips, including how to get your credit report,