One of the things I like best about doing newspaper features is that I constantly learn something new.

This week I covered a meeting where the civilian crime prevention specialist in our county talked about ways to protect ourselves against fraud.

We hear a lot these days about identity theft. But before I heard that talk I didn't think it was much of a problem. After all, what are the odds someone will steal our identity?

A lot higher than you think, said Dale Phillips, citing the escalating number of people who fall victim to identity thief and credit card fraud.

"Two things are making it easier than ever before for crooks to scam us credit cards and the Internet.

"People think it isn't much of a problem until it happens to them. Then they see how serious it is because it can take years to undo the damage," she says.

I used to believe crooks only went after people with lots of money. Not true, she says. Anyone who owns a credit card or uses an ATM is vulnerable.

In our small county there have been 92 reported cases of credit card/ATM scams just in the past four months. "And that number only counts the people who call our office and report they've been scammed. Some people don't want to tell others how they were ripped off," she says.

Last week two people in my town were victims.

One woman filed her income tax and waited for her anticipated refund. Instead of getting the refund, she was notified by the IRS that her return was already filed and the refund was sent to another address in a different state.

Someone pulled off that scam by gaining access to the victim's Social Security number and then listing a change of address so the refund was sent to them.

"Guard your Social Security number like you guard your children," she stresses. "Never carry your Social Security or Medicare card in your wallet and be careful about giving your number to anyone. That's all someone needs to steal your identity."

She also warned against paying bills by putting checks in your curbside mailbox then raising the red flag to let the letter carrier know you have outgoing mail.

"That also alerts scam artists. Once they have the bank routing number on your bank check they can use that information to steal from you. If you're mailing checks, you're better off doing it from the post office," she said.

An even more dangerous practice is not being vigilant with your credit card," she added. "When your credit card is out of your possession such as when you are paying in a restaurant, be especially vigilant. Someone can make a copy of your credit card information. They may wait awhile before using that information, and when they do, it's almost impossible to catch them," she says.

Another successful pattern used by scam artists is to gain your credit card number then file a small phony charge of two or three dollars.

"People often fail to question a small amount like that. But that lets the scammer know it's a live card number and it leads to bigger charges down the line," Phillips said.

Two audience members said that's exactly what happened to them. But both prevented a bigger scam by acting immediately when they saw the under $2 charge they never made.

Phillips strongly recommends that credit card users carefully examine their bills every month then question every charge you don't recognize. The same is true about examining monthly bank statements.

Banks recommend checking Internet accounts several times a week. One bank officer said she routinely checks her accounts at the end of every day. She advises others to do the same.

"The earlier you can spot fraud, the easier it is to correct the problem," the fraud prevention expert says.

She strongly advises judicious use of debit cards and ATMs. Use inside machines only, she stresses.

At an ATM outside a local supermarket, a scammer had installed a device to capture information from every card that went through the machine.

"These skimming devices are showing up more frequently at gas stations, supermarkets and other outside card readers. If you have trouble with your card sticking when you insert it into the slot, it could be because there is a skimmer hidden inside. If a card sticks, leave that machine right away," she advises.

After I heard her talk, I made some changes in my own life. Because I've been going to doctors on a regular basis, I've been carrying my Medicare card in my wallet. Of course, we all know these cards carry our Social Security number. I now keep my Medicare card at home until I am leaving for a doctor's appointment.

"There have been movements to urge the government to stop putting Social Security numbers on these cards. So far it has fallen on deaf ears," she says.

I've also stopped putting my outgoing mail with enclosed checks in my mailbox. Following the expert's advice, I take them to the post office.

"The sound of a paper shredder should be daily music in your home. Shred everything, even junk mail," the fraud prevention specialist recommends.

Changing a few habits now might save major problems down the road.