November 18, 2009 | The New York Times

A clotheshorse racked up thousands of dollars in mystery charges on a friend’s credit card. Phantoms emptied your uncle’s bank account. Someone took out a car loan in your colleague’s name and stuck her with the bill.

Identity fraud has been on the rise, as criminal cunning may be mixing with desperation during the downturn. Schemes seem to multiply daily, as scammers often half a world away dream up new ways to steal data to enrich themselves. According to Javelin Strategy and Research, 9.9 million Americans were victims of identity theft in 2008, up from 8.1 million in 2007.

With all kinds of private information residing in all kinds of places, vigilance can be difficult. Using caution when surfing the Internet and keeping antivirus software up to date are vital steps, experts say, but they are not enough. And most tools for fighting identity fraud — credit-monitoring services, fraud alerts and credit freezes — are reactive, not proactive, and they primarily address abuse of financial accounts, not other types of identity fraud.

But a new breed of products is tackling the trickier matter of preventing identity theft. New approaches include scouring the Internet in search of signs that criminals have your information, so you can move to block them. Others focus on keeping your data away from criminals in the first place, locking it down while you bank, shop or do other personal tasks online. Here are some ways to keep your information yours.

ASSESSING RISK The Internet is awash in personal data, which means yours may never be found. Several services look for signs of sticky fingers, to know when data reaches the hands of criminals so people can act quickly.

With the help of partners like the United States Postal Service, Discover Card and companies that perform background checks, LifeLock monitors change-of-address filings and applications for credit cards and jobs made in the names of its customers, so it can alert them. TrustedID, a LifeLock competitor, recently introduced a service that analyzes both public and proprietary data to assess a person’s risk of identity theft — for example, the risk would increase if a person’s Social Security number was found to be associated with a different address — and recommends actions to lower your risk score.

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