Oprah Winfrey and Martha Stewart lost theirs to the same busboy. Robert De Niro had his swiped by a movie double. Tiger Woods—only the most famous athlete on the planet—had to go to court to get his back. And we're not talking cars, wallets or golf clubs. We're talking identities.

Creepier still, it's a safe bet that if these celebs can all be victimized, you can too. With 700,000 victims a year, identity theft—the stealing of Social Security numbers, credit card info and other personal data—is one of the fastest-growing crimes in the U.S., rising roughly 500 percent in just three years. It's no nickel-and-dime scam: In 2000 the Secret Service alone made 3,100 identity-theft arrests; victims lost an average of $50,000. In Detroit, for instance, senior citizens discovered that con artists had drained the equity out of their homes, while a West Coast woman who had her wallet stolen learned the thief not only rang up $10,000 in charges but gave birth under her name. "It's sure a lot easier than carrying a gun into a 7-Eleven," says consumer advocate Edmund Mierzwinski of the Public Interest Research Group. Safeguards, he says, include eliminating preapproved credit offers that are easy pickings for swindlers. "Get off all those lists," says Mierzwinski. "Thieves know it's a simple way to get money fast."

Other precautions: Shred old documents and monitor bank statements. Yet as these tales of purloined IDs illustrate, it can be difficult if not impossible to lock up your name.

Lyndel Lucas
Police continue to mistake him for a rapist who stole his name

Lyndel Lucas has been arrested five or six times now—frisked, handcuffed and hauled off to the station. What he hasn't done is commit a crime. "I am sick and tired of it," says Lucas, 46, the owner of a bustling garden nursery in Lampasas in central Texas. "I want to be able to drive down the street without looking in the rearview mirror for a cop."

Ever since his identity was stolen by a rapist and child molester in 1986, that has been wishful thinking. Lucas had just begun working at the nursery when drifter Jerry Winston Giles, then 46, showed up and asked for a job. Lucas gave him one, along with a cot in a storage room. "He was going to provide security for the nursery," says Lucas. "Talk about putting the fox in the henhouse."

Giles left three months later but not before taking documents with Lucas's Social Security number on them. Then, in 1989, a police officer pulled Lucas over for an expired registration sticker. "He was really agitated," says Lucas. "He had his hand on his pistol. I felt my life was in danger." The officer then slammed Lucas against the car and put him in handcuffs. Turns out he had run the license plate and learned that a Lyndel Lucas had been arrested for rape in San Antonio two years earlier and had violated parole. Lucas realized Giles had given authorities his name and Social Security number, but by then there was little he could do. "If a person is arrested, within two hours he has his name on 16 documents," says Lampasas County Sheriff Gordon Morris. "Think how many thousands of pages out there now have Lyndel's name on them."

Giles served seven years in prison under Lucas's name and was later arrested twice in Colorado for child molestation. (He is currently in a Colorado prison and due to be released later this year.) Since 1989 Lucas has met with the FBI, the Department of Public Safety and a congresswoman to try to clear his name. But purging all references to the conviction in hundreds of databases simply "cannot be done," says Michael Bernard, a district attorney in Bexar County. "I know that's not what Lucas wants to hear, but that's the reality. It's sad." One attorney told Lucas it would cost up to $20,000 to clean up the mess, far more than he could afford.

Bumping up against an often uncaring bureaucracy has left Lucas—divorced three times and the father of three—feeling doubly victimized. State agencies "should go out of their way to protect me," he says. "Instead, until recently it was like, 'This is your problem, not ours.' "

Lucas will soon receive a numeric password that he can give to officers who pull him over. Still, it would require new legislation for him to change his Social Security number—his best chance at severing his ties to Wayne Giles. "I'm in this twilight zone where I'm not guilty of anything but I'm treated like a criminal," he says. "Sometimes I want to throw up my hands and quit, but I can't. I don't want my grandchildren to look at records that say their grandfather was a rapist."

Jenni D'Avis-Pederson
$100,000 in sham charges drove her to a nervous breakdown

Jenni D'Avis-Pederson had always been meticulous about her finances, so she was jolted in 1999 to receive bills for two maxed-out credit cards she had never applied for. Then a collection agency called to say she was behind in payments for a Chevrolet Suburban—a vehicle she hadn't purchased. "I knew," says D'Avis-Pederson, 30, an Everett, Wash., nurse, "something was terribly wrong."

Wrong to the tune of $100,000 in false charges, it turned out. Someone had opened 13 credit card accounts, seven checking accounts and nine cell phone accounts in D'Avis-Pederson's name. Bill collectors began hectoring her almost daily. "I felt like there was a bounty on my head," she says.

Such was the stress on the mother of three that in the summer of 2000 she left her job, eventually becoming suicidal and spending two months in a hospital psychiatric ward. "I was healthy before that," says D'Avis-Pederson, whose 13-year marriage also fell apart. She enlisted the help of the Secret Service and the U.S. Postal Inspector. Eventually they arrested Sadie Coleman, 42, whose sister worked as a security guard at D'Avis-Pederson's college. Coleman was convicted of bank fraud and identity theft. Turning from victim to crusader, D'Avis-Pederson lobbied Washington's legislature to pass a May 2001 law allowing identity-theft victims access to fraudulent credit documents—and making it easier to undo damage. Wed in January to Navy officer Eric Pederson, 32, she still approaches her mailbox with apprehension. "I always wonder," she says, "what else did they do that hasn't caught up with me yet?"

Traci and Ben Bales
Soon after their toddler's death, a stranger stole his name—adding to their heartbreak

In February 2000 Tyler Bales, only 16 months old, died of a rare metabolic disorder. His parents, Traci and Ben Bales, were still emerging from their grief 13 months later when they got a disturbing call from their accountant. Following standard practice, the Salem, Ore., couple had claimed Tyler as a dependent on their 2000 tax return. But the IRS was rejecting their tax form, saying someone had already filed a return listing Tyler as a dependent. "We were in shock," says Traci, 31.

They went to an IRS office with birth and death certificates and proved Tyler was their son. (The couple suspect that their son's personal information was culled from a genealogy Web site that lists births and deaths.) When the Baleses asked whether charges had been filed against the perpetrator of the fraud, an IRS agent told them that the amount stolen—about $1,500 paid in the stranger's refund—wasn't worth pursuing. Ben, 28, a police officer, tried to get authorities to prosecute but learned that federal laws make it impossible for local law enforcement to obtain taxpayer information—even if it is phony. "He got off scot-free," says Ben. "You can defraud the government and get away with it."

Their story helped spur Rep. Darlene Hooley (D-Ore.) to push legislation now being considered by the U.S. House of Representatives that would close the loophole protecting federal taxpayer information in fraud claims. "Nobody should have to go through what this couple went through," she says. Happily, the Baleses are expecting another child in August. But nothing can undo the hurt they have suffered. "The person who did this," says Traci, "should have to sit and look at a picture of Tyler and know what they did."

Anderson Cooper
Too busy to read his bank statements, the CNN anchor gets a rude—and costly—awakening

When thieves swiped $5,000 worth of personal items from his luggage in early 2001, Anderson Cooper got over it quickly. The son of heiress Gloria Vanderbilt and now the coanchor of CNN's American Morning, Cooper, 35, was too busy hosting ABC's The Mole 2 to worry about losing clothing and a laptop computer. What he didn't realize was that the crooks had also taken at least two of his personal checks, allowing them to create phony checks and loot $25,000 from his bank account over nine months. "I was traveling a lot and not really staying on top of my finances," says Cooper. "They couldn't have picked a better target."

Cooper finally wised up last December, when he noticed checks were still being drawn from an account he rarely used. The Manhattan-based bachelor called his bank and discovered that about 26 fake checks had been passed, as well as dozens of fraudulent wire transfers of money. Because Cooper did not report the losses within three months, the bank repaid only about $3,000. New York City detectives arrested two people in the scam, but at least one accomplice is still at large. Cooper now routinely shreds all personal documents and scrutinizes his monthly statements. His failure to do so, he admits, made him easy prey. "I wouldn't call myself a victim," he says. "I'm more like a sucker."

Written by: Alex Tresniowski and Thomas Fields-Meyer
Reported by: Katherine Ehrich, Hope Hamashige and Rebecca Paley in New York City, Alexandra Hardy and Maureen Harrington in Los Angeles, Bob Stewart in Lampasas and Angela Bresnahan in Washington, D.C.

  • Contributors:
  • Katherine Ehrich,
  • Hope Hamashige,
  • Rebecca Paley,
  • Alexandra Hardy,
  • Maureen Harrington,
  • Bob Stewart,
  • Angela Bresnahan.