More than 8 million identity thefts have occurred in recent years, according to the Federal Trade Commission. How does this crime happen? Thieves steal wallets, steal or open your mail, go through your trash, steal information from where you work or do business or complete a change of address form to divert your mail, says LSU AgCenter family economist Gloria Nye.

A global black market exists for stolen names, addresses, birth dates, Social Security numbers, computer logons and passwords, Nye explains.

The average theft is $4,000 in fraudulent charges, with 16 percent of victims — mostly debt card victims — having to pay some or all of the costs.

“You might not have any recourse if fraudulent charges are made in your name and you don’t dispute them promptly with your credit card company,” Nye said. “Identity theft can take from 80 hours up to a year to clean up, just to clear your name and restore your credit.”

Two common kinds of identity theft are account take-over, in which thieves steal your account numbers and use them, and application fraud, in which thieves open new accounts in your name.

How do you protect yourself? Guard your Social Security number. It’s the key to your bank and credit accounts. Be sure your Social Security number is not on your driver’s license, your checks or any other identification. Your checks should only have your name and address printed on them and no other identification. Do not carry your number in your wallet.

If you order new checks, do not have them sent to your house. Pick them up at the bank.

Never give out your Social Security, credit or debit card number over the phone.

Do not use the last four digits of your Social Security number when creating passwords or pin numbers.

The American Association of Retired Persons has suggested you carry a copy (not the original) of your Medicare card in your wallet and cut off the last four numbers on the copy.

Do not mail checks from your home mailbox. Put them in a locked P.O. box before the last pick-up.

Guard your mail and your trash. Have your mail held at the post office if you will be gone.

Check your credit card statement carefully for charges you did not make. Do not leave credit card receipts behind when you make a purchase. Do not throw preapproved credit card offers in the trash. Use a shredder.

Get a free copy of your credit report at least once a year and check it carefully for any accounts you did not open. Call (877) 322-8228 or order it online at www.annualcreditreport.com.

Close all accounts that have been compromised and report any thefts or fraud immediately to:

• Police: get a copy of your report so you can provide it to any creditors.

• The three credit bureaus (Equifax, (888) 766-0008; Experian, (888) 397-3742; and TransUnion, (800) 680-7289).

• All the businesses/companies or banks where you had accounts.

To avoid unwanted phone solicitations, sign up for the National Do Not Call Registry at (888) 382-1222 or at www.donotcall.gov.

e-mail: mclaesgens@agcenter.lsu.edu