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In the past few weeks, computer-savvy thieves have been out in force, picking through personal information left behind at docto’rs offices, stores and government offices — stealing everything from Social Security numbers to your credit card and debit card numbers.

According to some estimates, computer hackers — some from countries such as Russia and China — have been so busy, almost half of Americans have personal and money secrets in the hands of thieves.

Some of the most valuable information available includes Medicare or health insurance information, which sells for a premium on websites that sell data on the black market. With pilfered Social Security numbers, people can pose as you for employment or get benefits you are owed.

Into the breach

What can you do if you’ve been affected by a breach or fear you have?

Call an institution that’s been part of a breach and ask if you were involved. They also send letters.

If your credit card was involved, your bank will give you a new one if you ask, but setting up automatic payments all over again can be a pain.

Set up your bank account so you receive an alert on your mobile phone for any purchase above a certain amount. Keep in mind that thieves often start charging small amounts — maybe $10 — figuring you will look past them. A list of recent breaches is available at privacyrights.org.

If your information may have been compromised in a breach, the company might offer you a free service that will monitor your accounts for incorrect charges and check your credit report routinely.

Set your own fraud alerts

On your own, you can watch your accounts daily or get immediate alerts about any charge a person makes on your account.

Contact Equifax credit reporting agency at (800) 525-6285 and establish a 90-day fraud alert on your credit file. Equifax will alert the other credit reporting agencies: Innovis, Experian and TransUnion. Each might have different records, so involve all of them.

Request and examine your credit reports from all four agencies. You will get reports free because you established a fraud alert.

Report thefts to the Federal Trade Commission, your local police department, banks, credit unions, utilities and cellphone companies and fill out an identity theft affidavit with the IRS and state tax department.

To go even further after a hacking, you can tell Equifax or another credit bureau you want to put a freeze on your account. This means no one — including yourself — will be able to open a new credit card, get a car loan or mortgage or any other credit while the freeze is on.

This can be aggravating if you forget about the freeze, but you can lift it if you know you will be applying for a loan.

People with your Social Security number, address and name can do a lot of damage.

Gail MarksJarvis is a personal finance columnist

for the Chicago Tribune and author of “Saving for Retirement Without Living Like a Pauper

or Winning the Lottery.”

gmarksjarvis@tribune.com

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