Last Friday, the Queens, New York, District Attorney indicted 111 people in what is the largest bust of an identity theft ring in U.S. history. Those indicted were members of five organized forged credit card and identity theft rings, and their work had global implications, with thousands of consumers in both America and Europe being victims of identity theft. The theft rings are estimated to have caused a loss of over $13 million in financial damage to the victims, financial institutions and retailers.

According to a statement released by the District Attorney’s office, the defendants are accused of obtaining other people’s credit card account numbers through Internet suppliers who got card numbers through illegal Web sites, or they got them through a process known as “skimming,” in which people who work in a place where they have access to a lot of credit cards, such as a restaurant or retail store, can use a device to swipe a credit card and steal the information from it. With this information, they could forge their own credit cards that looked like they were their own. They then used those to purchase a variety of items, including electronics, handbags, jewelry and expensive trips.

While the defendants have been charged with using other people’s data to fund a luxury lifestyle, those affected by the theft rings face the arduous task of cleaning up their credit ratings, a process that can take years.

Unfortunately, identity theft is all too common. The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) estimates that each year, a good nine million Americans have their identities stolen. Oftentimes, the crime goes undetected until a person looks at his credit history and finds unauthorized accounts established in his name, or checks his credit card statement and finds records of purchases he didn’t make.

How exactly do identity thieves get your data? The FTC says that besides skimming it, criminals have been known to dig through trash, change your address in order to divert bills, steal wallets and use tactics known as phishing, skimming and pretexting.

With phishing, the criminal pretends to be a financial institution that sends spam or uses pop-up messages to convince you to reveal your personal information. Skimmers steal your credit card number directly from the card when it’s swiped during a transaction. Pretexting involves using false pretenses to get some personal information about you, such as your date of birth, address and social security number. Then they call up a financial institution, pretend to be you and manage to open an account in your name.

Although you can’t always prevent identity theft, you can take steps to protect yourself as much as possible. The FTC advises to shred all receipts and credit card offers that come in the mail. The Federal Reserve recommends never revealing personal information like your social security number or financial account numbers to an unsolicited request. Make the effort to figure out whether or not an e-mail request you receive is actually from your financial institution. Make sure you get a copy of your credit report every year, and examine your monthly credit card statements to make sure you can account for all of the charges on your bill.

If your identity is stolen from your credit card, call your credit card company immediately. They will close your stolen account and open a new one for you. Also call up one of the three credit bureaus and ask them to place a 90-day fraud alert on your account. The credit bureau you call will alert the other two credit bureaus. You have the right to a free credit report, so get it and make sure it contains accurate information.

Besides getting in touch with the financial companies, file a report with the police, who will investigate the theft. They may ask you to file an identity theft report in order to give them enough detail. The FTC also has an ID theft complaint form that’s useful for documenting identity theft because it requires you to think about the full details surrounding the incident so that you can provide the legal authorities with as much information as possible.

Finally, be prepared for some headaches. In my own personal experience with identity theft, I managed to catch fraudulent charges on my credit card pretty quickly because I was diligent about checking my online statements at least once a week. However, I had to spend several hours filling out reports and calling up companies to figure out what happened. I also had to close my account and wait a few days for a new credit card to arrive. While I got off pretty easy compared to some identity theft horror stories, it still wasn’t a pleasant experience and taught me to be more careful about how easily I hand out my personal information.