Months after phone carriers were widely criticized for handing over consumer phone records to the Feds, AT&T (NYSE:T) is suing to protect customers' privacy. Better late than never, eh?

Well, actually, it's better than that. AT&T's suit claims that roughly 25 data brokers accessed customer records without authorization through a scheme known as "pretexting" -- derived from the practice of using false pretenses to steal personal data.

It's big business, apparently. As recently as February, members of the Federal Trade Commission testified before Congress about the problem. Commissioner Jonathan Leibowitz said at the time that pretexting had become far too prevalent, and that the agency was investigating data brokers, apparently of the same sort that AT&T is suing.

For its part, AT&T says pretexters may have victimized as many as 2,500 customers, though no Social Security numbers, driver's license numbers, or similarly sensitive financial, credit or identity information was accessible. Furthermore, all of the potential victims have been notified, and their account records have been frozen to prevent further tampering.

That's a relief. And yet I find it eerie that I had no idea what pretexting was before the AT&T case came to light. It's even more disturbing that, at its website, the FTC draws a link between some forms of pretexting and identity theft, which says has cost as many as 14 million Americans $3.8 billion in out-of-pocket expenses since 2001.

Over the past year and a half, there have been several high-profile personal-information break-ins involving ChoicePoint (NYSE:CPS), Reed Elsevier (NYSE:ENL), Bank of America (NYSE:BAC), Retail Ventures' (NYSE:RVI) DSW Shoe Warehouse, and, of course, the Veterans Administration. Accordingly, I feel compelled to repeat our best advice for dealing with a potential ID heist:

  • Get out the word. Start by contacting the three major reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian, and Trans-Union. They can freeze your account to prevent further damage.
  • Track your spending. A money-management program such as Intuit's Quicken or Microsoft's Money can help you check credit transactions daily or even hourly. Make records of all fraudulent charges.

And finally, if you're the paranoid type, hire a virtual security guard. Credit-monitoring services are abundant, but they can't do much other than show what's been stolen. Other services, such as LifeLock, take the more useful step of allowing you to freeze your credit files on demand.

Surely I could include more tips here. But you may be better served by my Foolish friend Dayana Yochim, who recently wrote a report on how to prevent ID theft and permanent credit damage. Download the free report today.

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Fool contributor Tim Beyers thinks identity crooks ought to be locked up with the murderers. Tim didn't own shares in any of the companies mentioned in this story at the time of publication. Get the skinny on all the stocks he owns by checking Tim's Fool profile . The Motley Fool's disclosure policy is never subtle.