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Identity theft, fraud cost consumers more than $16 billion

It's time to keep an eagle eye on your finances.

Some 15.4 million consumers were victims of identity theft or fraud last year, according to a new report from Javelin Strategy & Research. That's up 16 percent from 2015, and the highest figure recorded since the firm began tracking fraud instances in 2004.

"All of the underlying types of fraud we measure are up," said Al Pascual, a senior vice president and research director for Javelin.

Card-not-present fraud — transactions made online or via phone where the cardholder does not need to present the physical card to complete the purchase — jumped the most, increasing 40 percent compared to 2015. Account takeover fraud — where thieves used stolen login information to access a consumer's accounts — rose 31 percent, and instances where fraudsters opened new accounts in a consumer's name were up 20 percent.

In all, thieves stole $16 billion, the report found — nearly $1 billion more than in 2015.

"Our [password] hygiene is very poor, and criminals know it." -Al Pascual, senior vice president and research director for Javelin.

The one bright spot amid all this rising fraud is that tech-savvy consumers tend to spot it quickly, minimizing the financial damage, Pascual said. The mean fraud amount per victim was $1,038, down from $1,165 in 2015.

Victims' out-of-pocket costs are even less, thanks to fraud protections governing credit and debit cards. The mean cost to the consumer was just $48, down from $56, according to the report.

More than three-quarters of victims who make frequent online purchases detected fraud within a week of it beginning, the report found. (The catch: Consumers with a heavy social media or online presence were also more likely to be fraud targets.) In comparison, "offline consumers" who don't do much shopping or banking online took more than 40 days to spot fraud, incurring more losses as a result.

"For them, when we make a recommendation, it's become more digitally engaged," Pascual said.

Halting fraud quickly requires both preventive measures and monitoring.

Set up alerts with your financial institutions. Depending on your bank and credit card issuer, you may be able to opt in for alerts on transactions exceeding a particular dollar threshold, those that originate overseas, or are made online, by phone or mail (where the physical card isn't present), said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.

Third-party budgeting apps, like Prosper Daily and Mint, also flag unusual spending and suspicious charges.

Keep tabs on your credit report for new inquiries or accounts opened in your name, said Stephens. Free sites such as CreditKarma and CreditSesame offer free monitoring, and you can also pull reports from AnnualCreditReport.com.

Pay attention to any changes in your credit score, too.

"A significant shift in your credit score might be a heads up that there's something wrong with your credit report," he said.

Create unique, complex passwords for each of your accounts, and enable two-factor authentication where you can, Pascual said. Thieves often test lists of passwords stolen in one breach against other accounts to see, for example, if your old Yahoo password is still the one you use for your checking account.

"Our [password] hygiene is very poor, and criminals know it," he said.

Using a virtual debit card or credit card number from issuers including Citi or Bank of America, or start-up Privacy.com, can help cut off thieves from accessing your accounts. Cards can be set up for only a single transaction, or usable for only a single site, rending a stolen card number useless.

Another tactic to consider: Placing a credit freeze with Experian, Equifax and TransUnion. This drastic measure prevents anyone — including you — from opening new lines of credit in your name, said Stephens.

It's not a measure to take lightly. You'll need to notify the bureaus in advance to temporarily lift the freeze if you later want to apply for a new loan or credit card, he said. Depending on the bureau, your home state and whether you're an identity theft victim, senior citizen or minor, you may also have to pay a small fee each time you place or lift the freeze.