Identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes in America today. You can lose your money, ruin your good name, have your credit destroyed and find yourself deep in debt, all through no action of your own.

Identity theft often begins when someone obtains key personal and financial information such as your Social Security number or bank account number. Personal information such as your mother’s maiden name may also help the thief “prove” his or her identity on a loan or credit card application.

Be careful that you’re not helping identity thieves by discarding papers with this key information whenever you throw away old bank statements, cancelled checks, or other financial documents. In addition, many consumers routinely receive “pre-approved” credit offers which a thief could take from their mailbox.

You can protect yourself by shredding all documents that contain personal information, including pre-approved loan and credit card offers, insurance forms and financial statements. The information in these documents could be used by an identity thief to open accounts and charge up debts in your name.

As an additional level of protection, you may also want to consider placing a credit freeze on your account with the three major credit bureaus. This will prevent other people (mainly creditors) from accessing your credit report unless you specifically authorize them access. This will in turn prevent anyone (including you) from being able to get quick, on the spot credit. For you, this may be a small inconvenience requiring you to temporarily “lift” the freeze whenever you apply for new credit, but for the would-be identity thief, it is a tough barrier to get around.