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I.D. theft: Digital defense is required in a disaster

How to protect your personal information before catastrophe strikes.

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Fires race through wealthy communities near Santa Barbara, Calif; hurricane Dolly hits the coast of Texas; floods swamp the Midwest. Property casualty insurers estimate more than $6 billion of property losses in the second quarter of 2008, resulting from 16 catastrophes in 27 states.

Also at risk in such events: personal data. Last week's news that 41 million credit-card numbers had been stolen by a Miami-based ring – the largest case of identity theft to date – again highlighted the threat from online data hackers.

But even the most organized households do not adequately safeguard their personal information after their home has been vacated or destroyed following a disaster. It's those moments when an identity thief can easily gain access.

American households are increasingly dependent on their computers to communicate with friends and family, pay their bills online, store important documents, and access news reports. With the home computer serving as the repository for valuable financial and personal data and with a plethora of financial documents containing birth dates, Social Security and tax ID numbers scattered throughout the home, it is easy to understand the growing exposure of Americans to identity theft.

Identity-theft victims spent an average of $1,865 to repair damage done to a credit account, according to a 2007 survey by the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit in San Diego.

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