I'd never heard Terry Watson before, but his enthusiasm and good humor persuaded me to spend 45 minutes in the seminar he was leading at the regional Realtors convention last month in Atlantic City.

The seminar was called "Life Is Credit," and considering that the Bush administration was preparing to announce its plan to stem the rising tide of foreclosures, attendance was indeed appropriate.

After all, would you rather spend 45 minutes watching Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, or listening to some guy who made it big in real estate before he was 25 talking about FICO credit scores and identity theft?

Still a tough choice? Watson (www.terrywatson.com) offers a list of 50 fun things to do in an elevator, including, "Shave (especially if you're a woman)" and "Greet everyone getting on the elevator with a handshake and ask them to call you 'Admiral.' "

See? No contest.

Watson turns more serious when the subject is identity theft, which he said occurs when someone appropriates your personal information without your knowing it, then uses it to commit fraud or steal.

With your name, birth date, and Social Security number, the thief opens a new credit-card account, uses the card, doesn't pay the bills, then calls the credit-card company, changing the mailing address to yours.

And thus, he said, "The delinquent account is on your credit report."

According to Watson, the ID Theft Data Clearinghouse says other common kinds of identity theft include:

Opening telecommunications or utility accounts fradulently.

Passing bad checks or opening a new bank account.

Getting loans in another person's name.

Working in another person's name.

You hear stories about people easily duped into revealing such information on e-mail or by phone. Sometimes, the victims are motivated by greed, especially when contacted by someone purporting to be a representative of a European lottery commission saying that they've won a big prize.

Other people are simply frightened. Some e-mails purport to be from credit-card companies or banks with which the victims have accounts.

The fraudulent e-mails are part of a scam known as "phishing," in which the sender falsely claims to be a legitimate company, according to the U.S. Treasury Department. The e-mails attempt to con the recipients into surrendering private information that can later be used for identity theft.

A phishing-scam e-mail directs recipients to visit a Web site, where they are asked to update personal information, such as name, account and credit-card numbers, passwords, Social Security numbers, and other information. The Web site is bogus, though, and set up only to steal information.

If you're concerned that phishing might be an issue for you, trying contacting the company cited in the dubious e-mail through other means, such as a listed telephone number.

Avoid e-mailing personal and financial information, the experts advise. Before submitting financial details through a Web site, look for the "lock" icon on the browser's status bar - it signals that your information is secure during transmission.

Review credit-card and bank statements as soon as you receive them to determine whether there are any unauthorized charges, experts say. If your statement is late by more than a couple of days, call your credit-card company or bank to confirm your billing address and account balances.

Watson recommends contacting Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, the three major credit bureaus, to report identity theft and to request that a "fraud alert" be placed on your file and no new credit be granted without their approval.

Pretty heavy stuff, so here's another one of Watson's fun things to do on an elevator:

"Crack open your briefcase or purse, and while peering inside, ask: 'Got enough air in there?' "

"On the House" appears Sundays in The Inquirer. Contact Alan J. Heavens at 215-854-2472 or aheavens@phillynews.com.

Join Inquirer real estate writer Alan J. Heavens for a live discussion at 2 p.m. Fridays on the PhillyTalk link at philly.com. He answers questions about real estate and home improvement in an online forum at http://go.philly.com/askheavens.