Every year, millions of Americans have their computers hacked or personal information compromised. Now, 21st-century Sam Spades can make your problems go away – for a price.


Your phone bill says you’ve made long expensive calls to remote island nations you’ve never heard of. Your computer floods screen after screen with ads and runs as if someone poured molasses into it. After faithfully paying bills on time for years, you apply for a loan and are told, “Sorry, not with your bad credit.”



If these scenarios sound familiar, it’s a good possibility that your computer or your personal financial information has become the personal playground of a computer hacker or identity thief. Each year 10 million Americans have their identities – their names and personal information – stolen. They lose an average of $500 and spend about 30 hours trying to clean up the mess, according to a 2003 survey by the Federal Trade Commission.



In this discouraging, even frightening situation, privacy gumshoes offer a ray of hope. More adept with gigabytes than guns, these 21st-century Sam Spades can make the problems go away – for a price.



At the top end are companies such as Gavin de Becker & Associates, a California consulting firm that among other things advises celebrities and other high-risk individuals on how to “hide your identity from people who’d like to steal it,” says Beth Givens, director of the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.



The fee: Don’t ask. (Mr. de Becker is out of the country and unavailable to speak, and no one else at the company is permitted to talk about its work, a spokeswoman says by phone.)



Some private investigators will track down records and straighten out identity theft too, Ms. Givens says, but they can be another potentially pricey option. Or you can do it on your own, if you have the time and energy, she adds. “Protecting your privacy is not something you can do in an afternoon.” Her website, www.privacyrights.org, offers 40 fact sheets on how to do it.



But just as some people can’t bear to face tax season alone, they want more than a list of tips.



Last year, Allstate Corp. began offering identity-theft insurance in Texas and a few other states as a $30 rider on its homeowner and renter policies. The spadework is contracted out to Kroll Inc., a risk-consulting company. “We take a lot of the work of identity restoration off the shoulders of victims,” says Troy Allen, vice president for fraud solutions at Kroll. “It’s very time-consuming and difficult and frustrating.” The Allstate plan includes filing paperwork for the victim, such as notifying credit-reporting agencies, credit-card companies, and the Social Security Administration. Kroll will also help victims understand their legal rights and work with police and collection agencies to sort out claims – basically, everything except those tasks that victims must do themselves, such as report the crime and appear in court.



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