Every four seconds, an identity is stolen in the U.S. Victims can spend years recovering from theft and attempting to clean up the mess it leaves behind, including lost job opportunities, refusal of loans for houses and cars and even jail time as a result of false data in law enforcement records. The recent news that the Justice Department will prosecute 11 hackers who gained access to more than 41 million credit and debit cards is proof positive that precautions need to be taken by consumers to protect their identity. At the same time, consumers and businesses alike want to utilize the convenience of electronic payments, online commerce and other technology-based exchanges.

To help you keep your identity in shape without overly restricting your daily transactions, EDS Security and Privacy experts have identified EDS’ eight tips to help consumers protect themselves from identity theft while still being able to share relevant information with those who need it:

Never provide your personal information in response to an unsolicited request.

Be wary of calls or emails you receive from organizations which ask for personal information. Always ask or look for contact information on unsolicited requests to ensure the caller or sender is not a part of an identity theft ring. If you believe the content may be suspect, contact the company yourself to check on the request and the need for this data. Reputable companies will rarely ask you to divulge this information when they call you, and are always willing to verify their identity to you.

Review your account statements regularly to ensure that all transactions are in order.

Identity thieves typically use stolen information for only a short period of time to avoid being caught. By reviewing statements when they arrive, or utilizing your bank’s online account options, you could detect a theft and limit its damage. If you suspect a security breach, act quickly by contacting the companies you do business with immediately. They want to help their customers have a positive experience, and will work to make sure the problem is resolved — for you and for future consumers.

Check your credit report regularly.

It is good practice to check your credit report on a regular basis to ensure you are not a victim of identity theft. Consumers can now get a free copy of their credit report annually through one of the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union. The Identity Theft Web site set up by the United States Federal Trade Commission (http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/edu/microsites/idtheft//) is also a great source of information about identity theft, including advice and guidance on the steps to take if your identity is stolen.

Beware of “phishing” e-mails.

Many legitimate companies are utilizing e-mail as a quick and convenient way to connect with their customers and quickly launch new products and services. It’s a great vehicle for communication. Unfortunately, identity thieves are taking advantage of this virtual tool as a way to steal personal information and target intended victims. “Phishing” is one of the fastest-growing forms of online fraud for identity thieves. Phishing emails look increasingly similar to the sites they are trying to emulate, such as a banking institution or credit card company, and will often address you by name, making them even more convincing. It is important to be wary of e-mails you receive from organizations asking for personal information. Reputable businesses will never ask you to divulge personal information from an unsolicited request. Thieves sending these e-mails usually ask you to click on a link in the email that takes you to a phony Web site. Once on the phony site, your computer can be infected with spyware or a virus without you being aware of it.

If you are interested in further exploring the contents of such an email, it is best to go to the site yourself by typing the Web site name directly into your browser (rather than clicking on the link provided in the email) to ensure you are not being directed to a phony Web site. A slightly skeptical attitude toward unsolicited e-mails is always the best policy, especially if you’ve never done business with a company before receiving an e-mail solicitation from them.

Do not use personal information for passwords.

Passwords are one of the best ways to make sure that the right people are accessing the right information. They allow you to quickly and easily enter into your online banking account, exchange personal information and make electronic transactions. But using information such as Social Security Numbers, account numbers, birth dates, names, e-mail addresses or telephone numbers as passwords can make you an easy target. Be sure your passwords contain at least eight characters and include numbers or symbols. Do not write down passwords or PINs to avoid misuse.

Update anti-virus and firewall software on your PC and apply critical security patches to your PC’s operating system on a regular basis.

If your anti-virus software does not have built-in spyware detection, invest in a spyware scanner as well as an anti-virus package. Run scans once a week and remove any unwanted viruses, adware or spyware that is detected. Also, check with the operating system vendor’s Web site at least monthly and install any new critical system patches and updates. Many vendors now offer automatic updates to your software; this is usually a good idea. Taking these steps will reduce, and in most cases, eliminate the potential for your PC to be infected with new viruses and worms.

Take advantage of the fraud prevention services offered by your financial institutions.

Most financial service companies today offer a variety of services to help minimize the risk of identity theft, but still allow you to access your accounts and transaction history whenever and from wherever you need it. These services include simple email alerts regarding unusual or irregular activity such as transactions over a specified limit; downloadable tool bars designed to help identify scam websites; and the ability to establish temporary one-time account numbers for on-line purchases.

Review privacy and security policies of the companies you do business with.

All reputable companies post a privacy and security policy or statement on their Web site. This should tell you what information the company collects, how it is used and what is shared. If you are concerned about your information being shared with other companies, make sure there is an option to keep your information confidential. Review the Web pages carefully to see if you can opt out of having your information shared. If this option is not offered, consider whether you want to do business with this company.