I like to watch crime dramas on television. The more dastardly the crime, the more avidly I tune in. But that’s because I know these "TV crimes" are fiction. Those aren't real people, getting hacked and ripped off and taken for everything they've got. Unfortunately, crimes like the ones I watch on television are on the rise in real life today.

An example from my own life: a few years ago, my personal data was hacked from the mainframe of my university's computer. Another example: a year after that, my computer caught a virus so deadly that I was at the store buying a new computer by that afternoon. So today, I take my personal data security oh-so seriously. Here’s what you need to know to do the same.

The high cost of cyber crime in America

It may have a glamorous name, but cyber crime—crimes committed with the aid of computers—isn't a glamorous thing. It costs American businesses nearly $13 million per year—and has increased 9% in the last five years (for more see HP.com).

What you stand to lose

Every two seconds, another person falls prey to identity thieves (for more see Fox). More than 16 million people have been victimized this way, with an average cost per victim of $1,500 (2012, Credit Sesame).

Overall, identity theft costs its victims anywhere from $1 to $9,650, depending on what was stolen and how it was used. Annually, 66% of fraud victims will lose personal funds battling the theft of financial and identity data. (For more see Daily Finance.)

How cyber criminals steal 

Some cyber criminals steal your sensitive data to use it to make their own purchases. But the vast majority of cyber criminals are after something bigger. Their goal is to steal your data and resell it. USA Today reports that a single credit card number can bring in anywhere from $10 to $50, and a single good credit card from a user with excellent credit can net the hacker hundreds of dollars in profit.

Multiple card number thefts can bring in $100,000 or more (such as the theft of my personal identity at my alma mater, which was part of a large data swipe from the business school's central computer database). While you may only be liable for the first $50 or so of fraudulent charges on your credit cards, there is no reliable protection for use of your debit cards, bank checks, or PayPal account numbers.

What to protect 

What do identity thieves want from you? In a word—everything. Specifically, keep these items under lock and key.

  • Driver's license and passport numbers
  • Social security number
  • Credit card numbers (and security codes)
  • Birth certificate
  • Utility account numbers (phone, electric, etc.)
  • Online banking numbers (PayPal, Square, etc.)
  • User names, passwords and PIN numbers
  • Employee and student ID numbers
  • Insurance certificate and professional licensure numbers

6 Scary software mistakes to avoid 

1. Not changing your password

The more accounts you have, the less likely you are to use different passwords for each account, or to update your passwords regularly. Cyber criminals appreciate this—it makes it much easier for them to steal your financial data from multiple sources.

2. Not updating your computer's operating system

Operating system updates not only bring new functionality to your door, but they also fix known security issues. Updating your operating system protects you from malware and spyware designed to creep in through those security weaknesses.

3. Not updating to the latest versions of the software you use

In the same way, updating your software can keep spyware, malware, and viruses out—this includes your browser software as well as your word processing and other software. Your browser software comes with built-in firewall protection, pop-up blockers and security settings to help you keep your sensitive data safe.

4. Not using antivirus software

For PC-based systems in particular, installing and updating to the latest version of trusted antivirus software is a must. Antivirus software can scan for malware, viruses and spyware, quarantine-found issues—as well as clean your computer.

5. Not verifying the source before downloading new software or plug-ins

The virus that destroyed my computer in 60 seconds came in through a third party plug-in (plug-ins are extra bits of software designed to increase functionality or compatibility between other bits of software). My mistake was in not being more cautious with who I trusted online.

6. Using old or incompatible software

Whether the issue is simply that you are trying to use software programs that are not compatible with each other, or that you are trying to save money by using an old or "bootleg" copy of software, this strategy can leave you vulnerable to identity theft and malware. Software is not designed to last and work well for more than a year or two—this is because as fast as new software is designed, cyber criminals design viruses and malware to hack it.

How to Avoid Being a Victim of Cyber Crime