5 tips to help you become a better consumer: the road to savvy consumerism starts now.


African Americans are spending a lot of money, on everything from clothes and cars to homes and vacations. But as we continue to spend simply because we can, we should be mindful of five steps that can make us better consumers:

26 Deal with identity theft

It's the fastest growing crime in America.

According to a 2003 survey by the Federal Trade Commission, 9.9 million people were victims last year. Identity theft occurs when someone uses your name, Social Security number, date of birth, or mother's maiden name without authority to commit fraud. To protect yourself, limit what you carry in your wallet. Always monitor your monthly billing statements and credit reports, and shred any documents that contain personal information. And if it happens to you, don't take it lying down. Inform the police, get a copy of the police report, and contact the FTC at www.consumer.gov/idtheft or 877-438-4338.

27 Comparison shop

Buying the first thing you see might be the case if you're in a rush, but these days you can find anything at the right price by shopping around. Try sites like www.pricegrab ber.com and www.pricescan.com, and don't forget to:

* Get more than one quote, price, or estimate. If you're shopping for a TV, for example, go to a few stores to decide on what you're looking for and to see who offers the best deal.

* Look beyond the price. If you're buying a big-ticket item, say an iPod, which costs $199 and up, ask the salesperson to throw in the service contract, a savings of $75 over two years.

28 Identify credit matters

Typically, credit scores range from 300-850, with 720 or more considered excellent. If you fall below 650, then it's time to get your credit in order. Order your report from Experian (www.experian.com), Equifax (www.equifax.com), and TransUnion (www.transunion.com), or get all three in one report from myfico.com. If you find information that is not yours, call the lender, write the lender, and have it removed. It may be time-consuming but it can be done. If the negative information is yours (i.e., lateness), you can begin increasing your score by paying your bills on time (you can even add a few points by paying the bill the day you get it); only...

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