1. It's no joke. Although the film Identity Thief is a comedy, it highlights how pervasive ID theft has become -- and how easy it is for criminals to wreak havoc. Still, you don't need to lose sleep -- or sign up for pricey monitoring services.
2. Who's stealing what. About 12.6 million people were victims of identity theft in 2012, an increase of more than one million from the previous year, reports Javelin Strategy & Research. One likely reason: a spike in website data breaches. Javelin found that nearly one in four people who were notified that their data had been compromised became victims of identity theft last year. The fix: Create a variety of passwords so that a thief won't be able to use a password stolen from one site to enter another. Create longer passwords that contain a mix of upper- and lowercase letters, numbers, and symbols.
4. Lock the door behind you. Don't share your phone number or birthday on social media sites. Keep your computer's security software up-to-date, and avoid sending personal data over unsecured Wi-Fi networks and webites. Set up alerts through your bank and credit issuers to notify you when large transactions -- say, $150 or more -- take place. Lock your smartphone's screen with a password, and set up the ability to erase data remotely in case the phone is lost or stolen.
5. Monitor your child's identity, too. Be on the lookout for unauthorized bills addressed to your child. Have the credit agencies run a manual search of your child's Social Security number to see whether it has been used. If you're not sure why a school form requires your child's Social Security number, don't hesitate to ask.
6. And if worse comes to worst. If you suspect you're a victim of identity theft, contact the organization involved, such as a bank or credit issuer, and file a police report. Place a fraud alert on your credit reports by contacting one of the three major bureaus (Equifax, Experian or TransUnion), which will notify the other two. Lenders will have to take extra steps to verify that you are the person taking out credit in your name. In more serious cases, a security freeze, in which lenders must get your permission to pull a report, may be necessary.
(Lisa Gerstner is an associate editor at Kiplinger's Personal Finance magazine. Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org. And for more on this and similar money topics, visit http://www.Kiplinger.com.)