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updated 2/25/2013 11:52:26 AM ET 2013-02-25T16:52:26

Identity theft in the United States rose to a three-year high in 2012, with more than 5 percent of the adult population, or 12.6 million people, falling victim to such crimes, says a new survey.

That's up from 4.9 percent in 2011 and 4.35 percent in 2010.

The study, conducted by Javelin Strategy and Research, surveyed 5,249 individuals in 2012. Now in its 10th year, the survey claims to be the longest-running research project of its kind and has had more than 48,000 participants over the course of its decade-long run.

Last year, identity thieves made off with $21 billion in ill-gotten gains, the most since 2009 and a number that Javelin says equates to one identity-theft incident every three seconds.

What may be even more shocking is the fact that 25 percent of American adults who receive notifications of a data breach, urging them to take precautions against identity theft, become victims of identity theft anyway. This may indicate a need for people to take such notifications more seriously.

The study also notes that "not all breaches are created equal" and that individuals whose Social Security numbers become compromised are "five times more likely to be a fraud victim than an average consumer."

[ 5 Simple Steps to Help Prevent Identity Theft ]

As companies, banks and individuals become more adept at quickly combating identity theft, criminals have less time to abuse stolen identities.

In 2010, criminals, on average, had more than three months to commit fraud with hijacked information. Last year, consumers' information was used to commit fraud for an average of 48 days.

What may be less obvious than the sheer number of people affected and the amount of money lost is the impact identity theft has on small businesses.

According to the survey, after a consumer becomes a victim of identity theft, he becomes more selective about where he's willing to swipe his card or with whom he'll share his personal details.

Javelin found that 15 percent of former fraud victims "change behaviors and avoid smaller online merchants," a much larger number than those who chose to stay away from bigger retailers like Amazon and gaming sites such as RuneScape.

Rather than by avoiding small merchants, consumers can protect themselves from identity fraud by following a few common-sense rules when handing over sensitive financial information.

Around tax season, especially, it's important to shred financial documents. Thieves often begin their scams with the low-tech strategy of dumpster diving.

When sharing credit-card information online, make sure you do so through a secure connection. Make sure the URL begins with "https" or shows a locked-padlock icon in the URL address bar.

In any situation, online or off, during which you're asked to share sensitive details, remain skeptical. Why do they need this information? How will they use it? What will they do with it once it's no longer needed?

Those are all crucial questions consumers should take a couple of seconds to answer in order to avoid days of headache and frustration and financial calamity.

© 2012 TechNewsDaily

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