Identity theft is the fastest-growing crime in America. According to the FBI, an estimated 10 million Americans are victims of identity theft each year -- costing an incredible $50 billion a year, either to the individual, the creditors, financial institutions, or ultimately to the consumer who bears the burden of these losses in higher prices for goods and services.

A new book by Frank Abagnale, the FBI identity theft expert -- and former impostor whose life was the subject of a hit movie,

Catch Me if You Can

-- gives some frightening statistics. In

Stealing Your Life

(Broadway Books), he details just how vulnerable we all are.

Abagnale is traveling the country on behalf of

Staples

, the office supply retailer, to promote a new "micro-shredder," the latest in personal finance tools. As he notes, the investigators in the Enron case were able to reconstruct files that were simply shredded into ribbons. While those credit card offers you toss in the trash might not tempt an identity thief if they're simply torn into pieces, Abagnale's story is a reminder of how loosely we treat our important information.

It's important to define exactly what identity theft is -- and how it can happen to you. Your first instinct is to think about the hassle of having someone steal your wallet and use your credit cards. But that's only the most basic level of identity theft. If your wallet is stolen, hopefully you've made a list of all your credit card numbers and the toll-free numbers to call in case of loss.

(For a free copy of my Personal Financial Organizer that includes this information, and more, go to

my Web site, fill in the pop-up box, and you'll get a reply that links you to this form. Then click to print it out on paper, and then

TheStreet Recommends

fill it out

with all the information, ranging from your bank, mutual fund, and brokerage account numbers to contact information for your personal advisors. Tell your spouse, trusted child, or friend where you've placed this form, in case of an emergency.)

If you

know

your credit card has been stolen, you have a head start on the thieves by notifying your card issuer, and perhaps by calling the credit bureaus and putting a freeze on your credit report. (Fourteen states have passed legislation authorizing such a freeze.)

But what if an identity thief grabs your information without your knowledge? We've seen that happen as major retailers, hospitals and banks have lost magnetic tapes containing names and social security numbers. A new law being proposed in Congress would require immediate notification of anyone affected. But sometimes it is days before even the retailer is aware of the loss of data. In online chatrooms, the thieves could have already sold your identity.

Another potential disaster scenario: Lately you've read headline stories about immigration scams that use false social security numbers to provide documentation to illegal aliens. How would you know if someone is using your social security number?

It's not so bad, I suppose, that they're reporting income in your name. But what happens when they start opening credit accounts?

Abagnale recommends

MyPublicInfo, a service that costs $79 -- which I wrote about nearly a year ago -- to securely give an instant report about where your name appears in all public documents. (You can only find your own information, because access requires answering some personal questions that only you would know, much as online credit reports require this type of security.)

The most important message is how vulnerable we all are -- and in so many ways. Do you check your bank balance or shop online using an insecure wireless network, or an Internet café computer? Assume someone is capturing your keystrokes. Do you click on those emails asking you to confirm banking information, a process called "phishing?" Assume that you've been redirected to a site that lifts your data for resale to a global theft ring.

Think before you click on your computer or toss your trash. Guarding your identity is a full-time process. 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. The Street.com has a revenue-sharing relationship with Amazon.com under which it receives a portion of the revenue from Amazon.com book purchases by customers directed there from TheStreet.com.