It’s no secret that identity theft has become a major problem in this country. Last year alone, more than 9.9 million Americans fell victim to this devastating crime. And it can be devastating.

Identity theft occurs when someone acquires key pieces of your personal information with the intent to commit fraud. Most commonly, they use this information to open new credit accounts and run up huge debts. However, this is not the only use of stolen personal information. It can also be used by someone looking to immigrate illegally, carry out terrorist activities, assume a new identity, or even to blackmail you or someone in your sphere of relationships.

How does a thief gain access to your identity?

While most people believe their greatest exposure to theft is through the Internet, experts say your mailbox (where thieves can obtain account statements, new checks and credit offers) and your garbage are the easiest ways criminals can access your personal information. The theft of your purse or wallet is also common. And then there’s those situations in which you willingly give out information over the phone (to someone who calls with a great offer) or over the Internet in response to a fraudulent email (commonly referred to as “phishing”).

Once a thief has your information, he generally has weeks (even months) before you become aware that there’s a problem. In fact, it may not become evident until you suddenly start receiving bills for revolving accounts you never set up, in towns you never visited, for items you never purchased. By this time, your credit report has become peppered with new accounts that you had no idea existed.

Once that happens, it’s a nightmare trying to undo the damage.

However, there are ways to be proactive and protect yourself. For instance, most credit card companies offer services that will monitor your account for unusual activity, notify you immediately if there’s a problem, and protect you from the fraudulent charges. The three leading credit reporting agencies in the United States: Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian, each offer monitoring services as well (although that’s all they do … monitor and inform).

There are other ways you can help minimize your potential risk as well:

Never share your banking information, particularly your personal password, with anyone unless you initiated the contact or you personally know the person you’re dealing with. Legitimate banks and other businesses will not call or email you requesting your personal account information. When you receive a request for your account information (whether it’s a bank account, a credit card account, or even a PayPal or eBay account), red flags should go up.

Always guard your PIN (personal identification number) at ATMs.

Sadly, you shouldn’t leave outgoing mail in your home mailbox for pickup. Either take the mail to the post office or drop it off at a secure postal mailbox.

Never carry your Social Security card in your wallet. If you have to carry credit cards in your purse or wallet, as most of us do, keep them to a minimum. Preferably a single card.

Never use your credit card on the Internet unless you’re initiating the purchase and it’s done through a secure connection. You can quickly identify a secure connection by checking for “https” in the URL or the lock icon in the corner of the screen.

Keep a list of your credit card and bank account numbers in a secure location, such as a locked safe or a safety deposit box.

Always shred personal documents. This includes all those credit card offers you receive in the mail, old account statements, billing statements, credit card statements, etc. And use a double-cut shredder to be on the safe side. You can pick one up at nearly any office supply store for under $40.00.

Keep track of your bank and credit card statements. Make sure they arrive every month and monitor them for any unusual activity. If a bill doesn’t show up, it can be an indication that someone has set up a change of address without your knowledge.

Order a credit report from all three agencies (Equifax, TransUnion, and Experian) twice per year, review them, and compare them carefully. If you discover any fraudulent entries immediately contact each agency, explain the situation and follow the proper procedures to correct the problem.

Identity theft is on the rise throughout the United States, but that doesn’t mean it has to happen to you. Take a few diligent precautions and your chances of never becoming a victim increase dramatically.

Want to check your credit report for free? Learn exactly how to get yours here: The Quickest, Easiest Way To Obtain A Free Credit Report