Do you hand your credit card over to servers in a restaurant?

Do you give out personal information over the Internet?

Do you carry personal information in your purse?

Do you put out mail in your mailbox?

If you answered "yes" to any of the above questions, you could potentially become a victim of identity theft.

Identity theft is the number one crime in the world. It has surpassed drug trafficking.

That's the message Michael Sutton of Identitytheft Shield relayed to members of the Western Pocono Women's Club.

Identity theft is a form of fraud in which someone pretends to be someone else by assuming that person's identity, typically in order to access resources or obtain credit and other benefits in that person's name. The victim of identity theft can suffer adverse consequences if he or she is held accountable for the perpetrator's actions.

Sutton gave an example of one man who had his wallet stolen. He had four items in it. His Air Force card, driver's license, $4 cash and a credit card. Through a series of events not of his own making, he was fired from his job, arrested, lost his home, filed for bankruptcy, ended up living out of his car, before someone offered him legal help. He had to change his name. It took him four years to get his life back.

One woman didn't know her medical identity had been stolen until she received medical bills for having her right foot amputated. She personally visited her medical insurance office to show them she still had her right foot. Later, when she was hospitalized for having a heart attack, she was told she couldn't be given a certain type of medication because she was diabetic. She wasn't diabetic, but evidently the person who had stolen her medical identity did.

"A thief could do more damage with your ID in one hour than you could do in a lifetime," said Sutton.

He named the five types of identity theft.

*Driver's licenses

*Character/criminal identity theft (posing as another person when apprehended for a crime)

*Financial transactions (using another's identity to obtain credit, goods and services)

*Social Security numbers (using another's information to assume his or her identity in daily life)

*Medical identity theft (using another's identity to obtain medical care or drugs)

He said that a Social Security number is a person's biggest identifier. He stressed that no one should give out that number or carry the card with you. In the wrong hands, that identification information can ruin your life.

"Only carry your Social Security and medical cards when needed."

One of the members asked what happens to the person who steals your identity.

"Less than 5 percent are arrested. At best they receive a slap on the wrist. Fraud is a non-violent white collar crime. It's just not a priority for law enforcement," Sutton responded.

With all this doom and gloom, one of the ladies asked what can a person do to prevent this from happening.

His answer was even more depressing.

"Nothing. Identity theft cannot be prevented. The key is early detection. The faster you find out the less damage, and the faster it can be corrected," he said.

Sutton said that people should regularly monitor their credit reports, review credit card statements and make sure a credit card is signed so the signature can be checked.

Members Judy Smith and Carolyn Andrews, both in the banking business, also suggested that everyone should make sure their checkbooks balance each month.

Someone asked about a company that advertises they can prevent identity theft.

"Be sure a company does not promise you that they can prevent identity theft. It can't be done. A company like Shield, monitors your credit report in all areas 24 hours a day, seven days a week. If you become a victim, they'll fully restore your identity. If you had to do that on your own, you'd have to make a report to the Federal Trade Commission, wait until they send you a fraud packet. It takes between 300-500 hours to complete and costs a minimum of $1,500. You're not even qualified to complete it," Sutton said.

Sutton told the ladies that he was sorry he scared them. But he wants everyone to become informed and aware of what is available to them so they will not have to pay too high a price if they should have their identity stolen and the steps needed to restore your good name and credit standing that took you years to earn.