RATON, New Mexico (STPNS) -- Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in America, and during the holidays, with increased spending and use of credit cards, it is a time of heightened risk for many consumers.

Identity theft is known as a "smart crime," since it generally takes some intelligence to perpetrate, according to Zachary Friesen, a Denver associate of a leading identity theft prevention service, LifeLock, headquartered in Tempe, Ariz.

While Friesen stays busy most days with his job of educating the public about this top crime in America, he does so not just because it's his job. Friesen has been a victim himself, and still struggles with certain aspects of the fallout from that theft when he was just 7 years old.

More than a decade passed before Friesen discovered his identity had been stolen. He found out when he applied for a student loan and for his first job. He was shocked to be denied both, tagged as an extreme credit risk.

"I told them this was impossible," he said. "I had never even had a checking account at that point, but I was informed that I had purchased a $40,000 houseboat and never made a single payment on it."

The variations on the theme of identity theft are so numerous and diverse, it can be mind-boggling, Friesen says. One of the most familiar is credit-card theft, which can usually be caught quickly by alert consumers who check their bills consistently and thoroughly. Another form of identity theft on the rise is medical fraud, where someone racks up charges in a hospital. This can be slower to detect because the victimized consumer may be unaware until it goes to collections. Another form of theft involves criminal fraud, in which someone who is arrested gives your name and social security number as their identity.

"In any case, if you discover that you are the victim of identity theft, the first thing you should do is report it to police," says Friesen. The next thing is to inform your bank and the three major credit institutions, he says, "but be prepared to fill out a lot of paperwork. Identity theft is the one crime in America in which you are presumed guilty until you prove your innocence."

The "Publications" link on the New Mexico attorney general's website (www.nmag.gov) provides information about identity theft.

Friesen's focus is education on how to prevent the crime in the first place.

"Students during the holidays who may be applying for temporary jobs need to be smart and careful. Don't give out your Social Security number," he advises, "and be sure to ask about safety issues, and what will be done with your personal information if you are not hired."

Friesen also advises checking periodically with various government agencies, including Social Security, to make certain there aren't multiple identities attached to your social security number, as there were with his own when his identity theft was belatedly discovered.

By Nancy Ellis

For The Range