Identity Thieves Gaining Ground

The problem of identity theft has grown so costly that President Bush Wednesday ordered the creation of a federal task force to police it. It's estimated that millions of Americans each year have their personal information stolen, and the thieves keep coming up with new ways to use it.

CBS News correspondent Thalia Assuras reports Cheri Capuano was on her front lawn chatting with neighbors when she discovered her identity had been stolen. A stranger drove up and gave her foreclosure paperwork — but the foreclosure wasn't on her house, which she owns, but for two others she's never even seen or known about.

"Oh my legs started shaking," recalls Capuano. "I said, 'I own two houses in Miramar? You gotta be kidding me!'"

It wasn't a joke; Capuano's identity had been stolen. Her name was on the mortgages and now the banks wanted their money. And it all happened because Capuano had lost her wallet while running errands five years ago.

She says that at the time, "I canceled my credit cards, I got a new driver's license. Nothing ever happened. So I didn't think anything of it."

But the lost wallet opened the door to a ring of thieves running mortgage scams in South Florida's hot real estate market. The scammers had Capuano's Social Security card and her driver's license, which they apparently altered with the photograph of what is known as a "straw buyer."

The straw buyer used Capuano's identity to buy two houses. Then came the crucial step: the scammers took out home equity loans for large amounts of cash, using the houses as collateral. They borrowed $91,000 on one, $74,000 on the other, and at least $12,000 in unsecured credit.

The thieves not only made off with at least $177,000 in cash, but Capuano is responsible for the mortgages as well. She says it totals nearly $1 million.

"It's a new type of crime," says Ken Jenne, The sheriff of Broward County, Fla. Jenne sees identity theft scams as the new street crime that's outpacing police everywhere. "It's a growing criminal enterprise across the country and this community that is going to grow and grow and not get any smaller," he says.

According to the FBI, mortgage fraud alone amounted to $1 billion last year. According to Jenne, "I could tell you to lock your door, lock your cars when it comes to robbery. But when it comes to this type of thing, it's very difficult to be prepared and to fight back."

Recently, Cheri Capuano's wallet was stolen again. But this time she was "lucky" — the thieves only took the cash.