ID Theft: 'Crime Of The Century'

Thieves are stealing wallets, snatching mail, even digging in the trash. Sometimes all it takes is a phone call.

But, says The Early Show consumer correspondent Susan Koeppen, crooks are finding it easy to trick consumers into giving out their personal information, then using it to steal their identities.

What's worse, it's getting worse. "We're seeing the tip of the iceberg. Identity theft is the crime of the century," says Linda Foley, who runs the Identity Theft Resource Center.

Just ask Holly Platt.

She had just given birth, and wanted to share the news with the world, so she and her husband put an announcement in the local paper. It listed their names and the hospital where their daughter was born.

A week later, Holly got a phone call. The person claimed to be from her hospital, and said she needed some personal information for billing purposes.

"She just seemed professional, I felt like I could trust her, I thought, and I even hesitated because I thought, well, they need this information, they have to bill me, I cannot pay the medical bills, and so I filled in the blanks and that was it."

Platt gave the woman all her personal information, including her social security number.

She didn't think about it again until months later, when her credit card company called to verify some hefty charges. The only problem is -- Platt doesn't have a credit card.

"She said, 'Let me give you the first five digits of your social, you verify the last four, and it was my social security number.' So I immediately said, 'Is this some kind of identity theft? Did someone open a credit card in my name?' And she said. 'Yes, I believe so.' "

Platt had been scammed.

When she gave her private information to the person on the phone, it wasn't the hospital calling, but a con artist who read the birth announcement in the paper, Koeppen reports.

The thief used her social security number to get a credit card, then racked up $40,000 in charges, buying furniture, jewelry, even a brand new SUV, all in Platt's name. If she hadn't caught the theft early, her credit could have been ruined for years.

"I was absolutely blown away," Platt says. "I was sick to my stomach."

Last year, Koeppen points out, 10 million Americans were victims of identity theft. And Platt's case shows just how far thieves will go to steal your information.

The Identity Theft Resource Center's Foley says thieves are stealing identities at the rate of one every 4 seconds, but most of these cons are never caught--leaving victims wondering if they'll ever be safe again. "There's this shadow following you around and you look down the street, (thinking), 'Was it that person or that person or that person?' There's always this quandary, when will they attack again?"

Identity thieves aren't just using the phone to steal your personal information, Koeppen notes. They're also on the computer, "phishing" for your social security number. Some are even going through your trash, looking for important documents you may have thrown away. Experts say too many of us aren't doing a good job of keeping our private information just that -- private.

"How many people have access to your information? It's flooring," Foley exclaims.

Platt was floored by just how easily she was duped: "I just felt snowballed, and the biggest thing I thought was, how could I have possibly known, because I play it over in my mind, thinking, 'You know, why did I give her that information?' It seemed so legitimate."

Platt isn't being stuck with paying the 40-thousand dollars in charges. The credit card company did a good job of catching the fraud early.

But others aren't as lucky.

There are precautions you can take to lower you risk of becoming an identity theft victim, Koeppen says: Check your credit report on a regular basis. Don't give out personal information freely. Ask a lot of questions. Don't carry your social security card with you, in case you lose your wallet, or someone steals it.

If you discover you are a victim, contact the fraud departments of the three credit reporting agencies, Koeppen urges. Then file a police report. Identity theft is a crime. Report it.

On Wednesday, in Part Two of this series, Koeppen will have important information for parents regarding identity theft. The newest victims are -- your children. Koeppen will explain why they're such popular targets for identity thieves.