Every year my tax office experiences a couple client situations where they are completely shocked someone has used or is using their social security number. These issues usually extend well beyond the separated or divorced parents that race to claim their child dependents (first to file gets the credit) and delve into an area that becomes a long and frustrating road to repair.

"A survey conducted by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) in 2006 estimated that 8.3 million American consumers, or 3.7 percent of the adult population, became victims of identity theft in 2005. Most of the financial losses are suffered by credit issuers and banks, as victims are rarely held responsible for fraudulent debts incurred in their name; however, victims often bear the responsibility of contacting their banks and credit issuers after an identity theft has occurred. The same FTC survey determined that victim consumers spent over 200 million hours in 2005 attempting to recover from identity theft."

The first step to protection is understanding the processes and tools available to protect yourself. The moment you have a suspicion about fraudulently activity, immediately call either of the credit bureaus to initiate a fraud alert. An initial fraud security alert lasts for 90 days and you are notified if anyone attempts to use your information to obtain credit. Notifying one bureau will automatically notify all three. Call 1-888-766-0008 to start a fraud alert or visit www.fraudalerts.equifax.com.

I frequently Google search a topic and add "scam" to my search to see if others have reported similar instances. Many times an offer may sound too good to be true and it often is! For instance, if the email is about a foreign national that inherited money and wants to transfer it to the USA, search for "foreign national money transfer scam" - you might be surprised by the results.

If you've done a little investigation and the deal or offer looks legit but you are still a little wary, never enter your private consumer information such as social security number without fully trusting the site you are on. One thing I've learned is that if I want to buy a widget from some company, there is almost ALWAYS another company that I trust or have a previous business relationship with that is also selling the widget - even if it costs a few dollars more, I always order from the trusted retailer. Also, call your bank or the alleged sender of the email to verify before submitting private data.

Ten things the IRS wants you to know about identity theft has a comprehensive list of additional tips and tricks for spotting identity theft. I’ve included my opinion of the top 3 below:

1. If you receive a letter or notice from the IRS which leads you to believe someone may have fraudulently used your Social Security Number, respond immediately to the name and address or phone number printed on the IRS notice.

3. Another sign that you may be the target of identity theft is an IRS letter indicating you received wages from an employer unknown to you.

7. The IRS never initiates communication with taxpayers about their tax account through emails. If you receive an e-mail or find a Web site you think is pretending to be the IRS, forward the e-mail or Web site URL to the IRS at phishing@irs.gov.