Consumers are increasingly at risk of being victims of financial crimes. Armed with as little information as a Social Security Number, crooks can steal an individual's identity and apply for credit in his or her name.

Another relatively new concern is the use of "skimming" devices, which allow a thief to steal a card's magnetic stripe and keypad information from ATM machines and gas pumps.

Moreover, with the growth in Internet transactions and e-mail use, there are new types of scams popping up every day. One scam growing in frequency is called "phishing." In this case, con artists use e-mail to try to hijack a person's financial information. In a phishing scam, swindlers claim to be from a reputable company and send out thousands of fake e-mails in hopes that consumers will respond with the bank account information, credit card numbers, passwords or other sensitive information.

These e-mails can look quite convincing, with company logos and banners copied from actual Web sites. Often, they will tell the recipient that their security procedure has changed or that they need to update (or validate) the recipient's information. The consumer is then directed to a look-alike Web site that, if the consumer responds, will provide the thief with personal financial information they will then use to order goods, services or obtain credit.

To avoid phishing scams, consumers should consider the following tips:

• Never give out your personal financial information in response to an unsolicited phone call, fax or e-mail, no matter how official it may seem.

• Do not respond to e-mail that may warn of dire consequences unless you validate your information immediately.

• Contact the company to confirm the e-mail's validity using a telephone number or Web address you know to be genuine.

• Check your credit card and bank account statements regularly and look for unauthorized transactions, even small ones. Some thieves hope small transactions will go unnoticed. Report discrepancies immediately.

• When submitting financial information to a Web site, look for the padlock or key icon at the bottom of your browser, and make sure the Internet address begins with "https." This signals that your information is secure during transmission.

If you have responded to an e-mail, contact your bank immediately so they can protect your account and your identity.

Another extremely common scam that has been around for decades involves an offer - now commonly received via e-mail - from supposed Nigerians kindly promising big profits in exchange for help moving large sums of money out of their country.

Many consumers are continuing to fall for the convincing sad stories, polite language, and the unequivocal promises of money.

If you receive an offer via e-mail from someone claiming to need your help getting money out of Nigeria - or any other country, for that matter - forward it to the Federal Trade Commission at spam@uce.gov.

While there are several other pitfalls not specifically mentioned here, the basic tips for protecting our financial information apply across the board.

Get a copy of your credit report from each of the three major credit bureaus (TransUnion (800) 888-4213; Equifax (800) 685-1111; and Experian (888) 397-3742) to check for accuracy.

Destroy preapproved credit offers, receipts and other personal information that link your name to account numbers.

Don't leave your ATM or credit card receipt in public trash cans. Crooks (a.k.a dumpster divers) are known to go through trash to get account numbers and other items that will give them just enough information to get credit in your name.

When you pay bills, don't put them in your mailbox with the red flag up. That's a flashing neon light telling crooks to grab your information. Use a locked mailbox or the post office.

Don't carry your Social Security card, passport or birth certificate unless you need it that day. Take all but one or two credit cards out of your wallet, and keep a list at home of your account information and customer service telephone numbers.

When shopping online, be sure the site is secure and reputable. Just because a site says it is secure doesn't mean it is. Be cautious purchasing from sites that advertise to be companies with no known physical address.

Crooks are known to call with news that you've won a prize and all they need is your credit card number for verification. Don't fall for it. Remember the old saying, "If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is."

• George Koffler is president and CEO of Bank of Eastern Oregon .

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