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Behind prison walls with identify thieves

Often, it's the story of the nightmare of identity theft victims that makes headlines -- not of those who perpetrated it.

But on "The Early Show," two women who made a career of identity theft shared their experiences.

Julie Watts, of the CBS San Francisco station KPIX was given exclusive access behind prison walls, and got two convicted thieves to reveal the secrets on how they did it -- and their advice to you.

Cheryl Thrasher emptied bank accounts for a small crime ring. Tiffany Andras did it to get drugs. They're two of the more than 1,400 behind bars in California for identity theft.

And they agreed to sit down to reveal the tricks of the trade, by dissecting Bonnie Hoag's story -- one of last year's eight million identity theft victims.

Hoag told CBS News, "I contacted every single bank, let them know I had identity theft, made sure they closed my accounts and put any kind of alert they could."

But Thrasher says that doesn't matter -- and she's not surprised that. even though the banks were notified, this happened: One week after her wallet was stolen, bank tellers say a woman used Hoag's identification to clean out her accounts at two different banks.

Watts asked Thrasher, "You've walked into banks and used fake IDs to take money out of people's accounts -- I mean, how is that possible?"

"You basically try to find a teller who looks young, you know, just starting or whatever," Thrasher said.

And Thrasher says the secret is distracting those tellers with friendly conversation -- something she says every identity thief knows.

Another common trick is to go to the bank at the end of the day. "You know they're not really paying attention, they're just doing the transaction to hurry up and get it done," Thrasher said.

She says that's something identity thieves count on, and likely something a woman seen on a video surveillance tape knew when, bank tellers say, she tried to steal money out of Hoag's third account.

"The teller called me one day," Hoag said. "She's like, 'Were you just in here?' I said, 'Absolutely not, you need to go catch her.' She said, 'Oh we just closed.' She said she came in two minutes before closing and, when we tried to ask her another question, she got skittish and ran out."

Thrasher said, "You know, banks have security guards."

"I think (security guards) make it a little bit too easy," Andras said.

Andras said the guards should have detained the woman with Hoag's ID, but thieves know that's unlikely -- even when tellers suspect fraud, because, she said, she feels banks are too worried they could offend a customer in the event they happen to be wrong.

Thrasher pointed out thieves aren't always working alone. When she was stealing money, she says, she often had help from the inside.

"They had told me who to go to, so that's who I went to," Thrasher said.

And, when she didn't have an inside person, she said, she was taught well-known workarounds for everything from passwords to fingerprints.

"They would use superglue, liquid bandage, they would put it on their fingers and wait for it dry just a little bit and then put it to somebody else, and that's how they would get a new set of prints," Thrasher explained.

Is there something banks can do to prevent people like that from stealing people's money?

"Make sure they're asked a more stringent amount of questions before letting them take a large amount," Thrasher said.

"I don't think there is enough security in place," Andras said.

They suggest real-time fingerprint verification along with regular employee drug tests.

But, these women also point out what's more important than how thieves steal your money is how they steal your identity to begin with.

Andras said, "People dig in dumpsters, or they may break into houses or cars and then, they may know somebody -- 'Hey this looks like so-and-so.'"

But Thrasher said the most common place to have your identity stolen is right in your front yard.

Thrasher explained, "Don't put your outgoing mail in mailbox at night, ever! You know, if they see a flag up, it's gone."

"The Early Show" noted the woman shown in the surveillance photos in the video on the broadcast has not been charged with any crime. But police are asking for the public's help in identifying her.