11/26/2013 05:01 pm ET Updated Feb 13, 2014

Understanding Identity Theft

Identity theft is, unfortunately, becoming a fact of life. Many banks and some businesses already treat customer data as if it has been compromised. For individuals, identity theft is one of the fastest growing crimes. According to Javelin Strategy and Research, some 12.6 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2012 -- roughly one million more than in 2011. Numbers for 2013 are on track to be even higher.

To understand why instances of identity theft continue to increase, all you have to do is follow the money. Ten years ago, following the money meant following credit, debit card and Social Security number theft. Thieves would steal credit and debit card information to make unauthorized purchases, and use stolen Social Security numbers to create new identities and open lines of credit. Today, every bit of personal information is valuable to identity thieves. Your email address, your passwords and even your mother's maiden name or high school mascot can be used by an identity thief to hack into an online bank account or an Amazon account.

The value of data to an identity thief also puts this growth trend into perspective. To begin, the average identity thief doesn't steal personal information for his or her personal use -- it is too risky. An identity thief will often steal large amounts of information, package it up in bundles and sell it online on the black market. There are hundreds of Internet relay chat rooms where personal information is bought, sold, traded and bartered. Some of it is even given away for free as a way for a seller to prove he or she has a good "product." You can purchase hundreds of email addresses for pennies. Based off of what we've seen at CSID, a credit card number, name and date of birth can sell for 13 dollars. A Social Security number can go for 20 dollars. A bank account with a balance of 10,000 dollars goes for an average cost of 625 dollars. The value of your personal information doesn't stop there. Even your social media account can be bought and sold. According to RSA, 10,000 followers on Twitter sell for 15 dollars. One thousand likes on Facebook sell for 15 dollars.

Even seemingly innocuous personal information, like an email address or a pet's name, can hold value to identity thieves. As we share more online, we make it easier for identity thieves to piece together profiles that can be used for fraud. For example, a pet's name or the name of your high school are common bits of information you post to social media sites. These two things are also common passwords or answers to password reset questions. And while it may seem time intensive for an identity thief to guess a password or a password reset question for every single banking or shopping site out there, they don't have to. There are numerous programs available to download for free that can test a suspected login and password against hundreds of shopping or banking sites in a matter of seconds.

The Bottom Line

Personal data theft can have major repercussions, ranging from financial annoyances to financial ruin, and from a hacked social media profile to a compromised Amazon account. People can best defend against cyber criminals by staying educated, keeping abreast of their credit reports, being cognizant of what they share online, and using an identity monitoring service that can keep an eye on their identity in obscure places online and offline. The risks and repercussions of personal data theft apply to everyone. Be aware of these risks and always take a proactive approach to defend against evolving trends in personal data theft.