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Q: While I was in Hawaii, someone broke into my house and ransacked every room. Besides all the personal keepsakes and electronics, they took our computers and everything out of our file cabinets. We didn't have anything backed up.

The police came and fingerprinted all over the house, but I figure the chances of recovering our things, let alone our personal information, are slim.

I'm worried about identity theft, now that they have all our records and hard drives. Because we were gone, they probably have a week's head start on using our information. What should we do to protect ourselves now that the horse is out of the barn, so to say?

A: You are right to be worried. Having your paper records and computers stolen is an identity nightmare. The thieves have everything -- your names, address, Social Security numbers, account numbers, earning and spending habits, and probably even passwords.

With this information, they can take over your existing accounts, drain the cash and liquidate your assets. Next, according to Robert Siciliano, identity theft expert and McAfee consultant, "Over the next coming weeks or months, in some shape or form, they're going to become her or they're going to pose as her. To some degree, she's helpless over this process."

Calling the police was a good first step. You have record that an actual theft took place. Now you must take immediate action, or things will get worse.

To keep identity thieves from taking over your existing accounts, Siciliano says, "Contact all open accounts she may have. What would help to remediate the situation would be if she had access to all her online accounts with some type of backup account." (Siciliano keeps all his accounts backed up online via an online backup manager.) "What she wants to do is make sure that access to all those accounts is protected. For me, they'd have a difficult time getting into my accounts because every single one has a different username and a different password.

"Any access is going to be difficult -- it's not listed anywhere and it's not written down anywhere. With her, her first concern is going to be, is there any type of administrative password? If the bad guy can just boot up those PCs and get access to her favorites menu, if she has auto-complete turned on, she needs to get into all those accounts and change the user names and passwords."

Your next order of business is preventing new account fraud. "She needs to do two things here and now," says Siciliano. "Get a credit freeze." Go to DefendYourDollars.org and click on your state for instructions on setting up a freeze.

"Another layer of protection that I'm a big fan of is identity theft protection," he says. "Identity theft protection is monitoring of your credit. You want to know 24/365 what's happening with your credit. You can check your credit for free, but that's not enough. If someone steals your identity today, you're not going to know. The only way you're going to be aware of any activity is credit monitoring."

That's really all you need to do to prevent new account fraud. It's a small investment in time and money to keep someone from ruining your financial life.

You may have heard that identity theft can steal hundreds of hours from you as you battle the unseen forces doing damage who-knows-where in your name. That's absolutely true if you dally at all before taking protective measures. If you act quickly, however, it can be like putting out a small fire instead of having to call the firetrucks. It shouldn't be that bad.

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Going forward, start backing up your files automatically and online, and think twice before letting your computer automatically complete your passwords. Siciliano also recommends people take a look at their physical security. "You'd be amazed at how many people don't lock their doors," he says. "Lock your doors, lock your windows."

Lastly, he says, "I'm a huge proponent of alarm systems monitored by the local police. People who don't have an alarm system, I think they're being irresponsible. There are a lot of drug issues in this country and desperate people. Not having an alarm system is like playing Russian roulette."