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I.D. theft: Digital defense is required in a disaster

How to protect your personal information before catastrophe strikes.

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"You see the panic in their face during a disaster when they need that information and recognize they can't reclaim their identity which someone else may have stolen," he says.

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Paul Stevens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, reinforces the importance of digital security.

"The digital world enhances the ability to protect key documents by giving individuals the opportunity to scan valuable personal documents into a thumb drive or memory stick, transferring critical data that must be absolutely encrypted to a safe location," he says. "Creating digital files of family photographs, identity and financial documents incorporates redundancies that can protect families who lose primary documents due to disaster."

Even in less threatening events, families who do not guard against digital failures are negatively affected. Ernie Bayard of Silver Spring, Md., experienced a data dump when a lightning strike last fall took out his home computer.

"It is wise to use an online backup system to capture all your data and to protect records," he says. "After our loss, we contracted with a company to automatically backup our hard drive, storing it off-site. It is relatively inexpensive, painless, and creates ease of mind."

To protect your identity in the event of a disaster, consider these steps:

•Make digital copies of favorite family photos, wills, deed to property, credit cards, car titles, health insurance, passports, pension and retirement documents, birth certificates, and wedding documents.

•Secure a safe deposit box at a bank for important documents, including a printout of key digital information (log-in information, passwords, frequently used e-mail addresses, credit-card numbers). In addition, place a copy of your computer hard drive in this box.

•Store tax documents, canceled checks, salary stubs, insurance and credit-card bills in a fire-proof box at home that can be quickly taken with you in case of a disaster.

•Back up and encrypt your PC. This is the most important step to protect against identity theft. Contract with an automatic download service to regularly back up your hard drive.

•After a disaster, remove sensitive information – Social Security numbers, tax data, birth dates, and credit-card numbers – from damaged materials prior to disposing. Preferably shred or burn any sensitive, damaged documents.

Dr. Kathleen Connell is a professor at Haas Graduate Business School, University of California, Berkeley.