Last year there were 20 identity thefts per minute

Here's a pop quiz: how many incidents of identity theft do you think happened in 2012? How often do you think they occurred?

Maybe you're aware of threats to your personal information. Maybe you've already taken steps to prevent identity theft. But do you really know how common it is?

Ok, I know I kind of gave it away in the title of this post, but take a guess anyway.  A hundred thousand? Maybe a couple million?

The answer may shock you: there were 12.6 million cases last year, according to the 2012 Identity Theft Report by Javelin Strategy & Research. That breaks down to a new incident every three seconds, and it's higher than the year before. The total amount of money stolen through hacks and compromises was over $21 billion, and many victims of identity theft were targeted through their Social Security numbers. 

The consequences of a trend like this are devastating and affect all of us, not just the victims. The same article reported that 15 percent of those who had their information stolen stopped making purchases through smaller online companies for fear that their data would be insecure. Well, wouldn't you?

You don't have to be Nate Silver to see the big picture here: it's hard to rebuild the economy and improve your business when consumers are afraid to spend their money. When you lose your customers' data, you lose their trust first and their business, second.

Like a lot of unseen dangers, there's a tendency among people to ignore threats to online security until it happens to them. You might see a story about it on the news and feel bad for a moment, but it doesn't seem that urgent, and soon you're thinking about something else. This is a fatal misconception. Data security breaches are not isolated incidents that pop up once in a while: they're a constant stream of attacks, going on round the clock, seven days a week. The sooner we understand that, the sooner we might finally take steps to keep our assets safe, so next year's number isn't even higher.  

John Sileo is an online privacy expert and keynote speaker on social media privacy, identity theft and fraud. His clients included the Department of Defense, Pfizer, and Homeland Security. See his recent work on 60 Minutes, Anderson Cooper and Fox Business.