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Stolen passwords sold to criminals in record numbers

More passwords were traded illegally at the start of 2012 than all of 2010, as criminals buy and sell your details.

More passwords were traded illegally at the start of 2012 than in an entire previous year, revealing the growing problem of criminals buying and selling your details.

New figures from Experian CreditExpert show more than 12 million pieces of personal information were illegally traded online by wrong'uns in the first four months of 2012 -- more than the whole of 2010. And 90 per cent of that illegally traded data consisted of password and login combinations, allowing criminals to potentially steal your personal and financial information.

The figures suggest the average Briton has 26 different online accounts, including social networks, online retailers, email accounts and more. If you're aged between 25 and 34, the average is 40. Yet a quarter of us use the same password for a majority of those profiles, and the average Brit relies on just five different passwords for all their online profiles.

Even if we do regularly change passwords for the accounts we use, two thirds of us have valuable personal and financial information, stored in accounts which we no longer use.

The results can be devastating: 9 per cent of adults have had debts run up in their name after their details were stolen, while others have only learned their identity had been stolen when they were later refused for a loan or credit card.

Recent high-profile cases of personal information being stolen include the hacking of LinkedIn, Steam and Apple -- not to mention the hacking of the Sony PlayStation Network that saw the personal and financial details of 70 million gamers half-inched last year.

Experian reccommends avoiding obvious passwords, use at least eight characters, mix upper and lower case letters, numbers and special characters, and find a system that allows you to have unique passwords that are also related in some way, so you can remember them.

An easy way of doing this is to sign up for LastPass, a service that securely generates a random password for everything you use. You just have to remember your LastPass password and it handles the rest. Read our guide on how to get started with LastPass here.

Finally, it's worth keeping an eye on your credit report, which you can do by signing up to Experian, or to similar service Equifax.

How many online profiles do you have? Do you use different passwords, and how do you remember them? And have you ever had your identity stolen? Tell me your thoughts in the comments or on our Facebook page.