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Identity heist!

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A quick phone call requesting a change of address diverts bills from the account holder's attention. Unless individuals check their credit reports, the theft can go unnoticed for a few years.

It took Heidi, a San Diego resident, seven months to learn that her identity had been stolen and used to open 30 credit-card accounts. The 30-something woman, who preferred that her last name not be used for this story, learned of the theft in December, when a clerk said she had exceeded her limit on her department-store charge.

Heidi ordered a copy of her credit report. Twenty pages long, it revealed new charge accounts opened at places she had never shopped - including the Disney Store and JCPenney - and a debt exceeding $30,000. Those whose identities have been stolen spend an average of 175 hours and $808 clearing their names, according to the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego.

Like most victims of identity theft, Heidi doesn't know how the thief discovered so much information.

The task of stealing personal data is not a stretch for many criminals. Some miscreants focus on people who send out payments through their curb-side mailboxes. Others sift through incoming mail for preapproved credit-card offers, particularly mouth-watering targets for theft. Still others simply call hundreds of homes, pretending to be a banker "verifying" credit-card information.

Technology has simplified most scams. Anyone with a computer, printer, and scanner can falsify personal checks, credit cards, and IDs. One Internet site, called Info World, was recently shut down by the FTC after granting 45 days of access to fake ID templates online.

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