Is identity theft on the rise? It's hard to tell by the statistics, since the crime is often lumped in with other reported illegal activity.

Regardless, such foul play is certainly getting a lot of publicity, starting with the Fed bust in New York last fall of a ring of ID thugs who tapped into more than 30,000 private files. (Read the tale of the fraudulent phone call that cost one victim $90,000.)

According to stats cited by CBS MarketWatch, California, Arizona, and the District of Columbia had the highest rates of ID theft in 2002 (as if we don't have enough to worry about here at Fool HQ, located just a stone's throw from our nation's capital).

Whether instances of ID theft are going up or down, it certainly pays to protect your good name. When you're done duct-taping trash bags to your windows, take a few steps to create a cocoon around your credit file:

Thwart the old-fashioned crime of wallet snatching. Photocopy the contents of your wallet -- all cards, back and front. Don't carry important documents, such as your original Social Security card or a passport, unless you need to. Eliminate personal information (such as your Social Security number) from your checks, and ask that it not be the identifier on documents such as your insurance card.

Give trash-picking thieves less fodder by taking your name off the junk mail lists. Opt out of pre-approved credit card offers -- gold to ID thieves -- by calling 888-5OPTOUT (888-567-8688).

Ward off high-tech thieves. Ask the credit reporting agencies to put a fraud alert on your file. It requires lenders to request additional documentation from you anytime you request credit. A pain in the keister? Sure. But at least you'll know if someone claiming to be you is trying to buy a hi-fi system on credit at Best Buy(NYSE: BBY).

If you're really paranoid, make the FTC's ID theft website your home page. It's regularly updated with the latest ID theft scams. Warning: Revealing your predilection for ID theft minutiae could be a conversation killer at cocktail parties.