It's scary to imagine someone stealing your credit cards and ruining your credit history. But it's even scarier to consider someone assuming your

entire identity

by taking your Social Security number and creating a completely different persona.

Maybe it's an illegal alien who has purchased your Social Security number. Maybe it's a fraudster who slightly changed your Social Security number to open new accounts, knowing that credit bureau software is likely to assume that the switched digits are a typing mistake. So new credit is authorized in your name -- at a fraudulent address.

Or maybe your identity hasn't been intentionally stolen, but the misdeeds of someone who shares your name are mistakenly reported in your file when a prospective employer does a background search.

How would you ever know? Even if you have a credit monitoring service, it won't report on different names using your Social Security number, and it won't check criminal records or other public records under your name. Thousands of Americans could share your name. And all of them can be confused with you in public records.

That's the impetus behind two new products that give you, the consumer, a peek at where and how your name and Social Security number show up in public records of more than 9,000 databases around the country.

At

MyPublicInfo.com, you can get an expensive ($79.95) but comprehensive rundown on where your name and Social Security number appear -- together or separately -- on numerous public databases. That includes those kept by government agencies at the federal, state and local level; court databases around the country, including records of bankruptcies, liens and judgments; law-enforcement records for felony and misdemeanor convictions; unclaimed asset databases of almost every state; up to 20 years of address history from phone books and credit bureaus; and much, much more.

This is

not

a service you can use to spy on your neighbor, boyfriend or ex-wife. To gain online access to your Public Information Profile, or PIP, report, you have to provide answers to specific questions that wouldn't be known to someone who stole your wallet.

When I ordered my PIP report, I was shocked in many ways. First, it took only minutes to generate a voluminous report. Could it really be that easy to find so much information? The process is so sophisticated that it has been patented.

Second, the PIP had details about my life that I never imagined were in public records, such as previous addresses (including office addresses) and phone numbers. It found my investment adviser registrations and corporate board member filings over the years. And it detailed how many shares I own in my cooperative apartment building.

But it wasn't just these intimate details that shocked me. What was really scary was the number of records it found for people who share my name and might be confused with me.

I learned that there's another Terry Savage in Illinois who has huge credit problems and filed for bankruptcy. The PIP report found 11 criminal records that match my name around the country. Several of those people are currently in jail for various offenses, and some are out on parole. And disappointingly, of the 129 unclaimed assets reported in my name, none belonged to me!

The report made me stop to think about the kind of information available, and the nefarious ways it could be used. That's why the second companion product, also owned by MyPublicInfo, is so valuable.

It's called

IdentitySweep, and for a montly fee of $4.95 it sends email alerts of any manipulations to your name or Social Security number. It provides automatic scanning of your personal information found in Internet directories and databases, including your name and up to three of your phone numbers, addresses and email addresses. So if your information is stolen, you can take immediate action.

IdentitySweep even monitors more than 100 Internet chatrooms around the world, mostly located abroad, where hundreds of people buy and sell stolen identity files.

For an additional $2 per month, IdentitySweep provides a zero-deductible identity-theft insurance that gives you up to $25,000 coverage for lost wages, legal bills and expenses for filing forms if your identity is compromised.

This type of public record search and warning goes far beyond credit reports and credit monitoring services. You're empowered to maintain control over the potential misuse of your identity. That's worth paying for -- and that's The Savage Truth.

Terry Savage is an expert on personal finance and also appears as a commentator on national television on issues related to investing and the financial markets. Savage's personal finance column in the Chicago Sun-Times is nationally syndicated, and she released her fourth book,

The Savage Number: How Much Money Do You Need?

in June 2005. Savage was the first woman trader on the Chicago Board Options Exchange and is a registered investment adviser for stocks and futures. A Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Michigan, Savage currently serves as a director of the Chicago Mercantile Exchange Corp. She also has served on the boards of McDonald's and Pennzoil.