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Identity heist!

If thieves have got your number - off a Social Security card, say - that's all they need to pose as you. Behind a rising crime wave.

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Employees who work cash registers sometimes run credit cards through tiny devices called "swipers" that read account information. The data can be downloaded and scanned onto a false credit card. Last month, a man allegedly linked to a terrorist cell was arrested for allegedly doing just that at a Cambridge, Mass., health club.

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A low priority for law enforcement

The complexity of some identity-theft operations has led investigators to suspect many are used to finance far more nefarious activities, such as drug dealing.

"We hear about a large drop in violent crime and assaults, and yet there's a large increase in the area of drugs," says Jay Foley, director of consumer victims services of the Identity Theft Resource Center.

"Where are they getting their money from if not from these kinds of crimes?"

Identity-theft operations are growing more sophisticated. Yet law-enforcement officials are paying relatively little attention. Many states qualify the crime as a misdemeanor. If convicted, most offenders will not even serve a prison sentence, but spend perhaps one year on parole and pay a $100,000 fine.

Judges would rather use dwindling prison space to incarcerate those convicted of crimes that cause physical harm. "They want people in the prisons who play with guns, not pencils," says Mr. Foley.

And police often squabble over which jurisdiction - that of the victim or the offender - should investigate the crime. In the case of the San Diego woman, the FBI said it had more important criminals to pursue.

"They listened to me, but basically told me they were busy chasing terrorists," says Heidi. "They said they don't usually take cases involving less than $100,000."

After reporting the theft and freezing their accounts, among other acts, consumers are relatively free of financial liability. But credit-card companies themselves are rarely willing to devote resources to track down offenders. Most simply write off the debt as a loss on their taxes.

Of the 30 companies that lost money in Heidi's case, only two were willing to file a police report. Kay Jewelers ultimately did so. A police investigator found a woman receiving packages at a Mail Boxes Etc. in Huntington Beach, Calif. At the time of publication, the woman had hired a lawyer, but had not been arrested.

A rich environment for theft

Consumer advocates hope to persuade creditors that prosecution of identity thieves is in their company's long-term interests. But they also point to an even broader problem driving theft in the American economy: the effort to do too much business, too fast.

Every day, 1 million credit-card offers are mailed to consumers; each minute, tens of thousands of credit-card purchases are processed, according to Ken Hunter, president of the Better Business Bureau. "The acts of theft are needles in a huge haystack of transactions," he says.

Many transactions are conducted in private. Americans can now open accounts, deposit money, and spend funds without speaking to a single person. Data that can be entered into a computer or on a telephone keypad are now used to identity most customers.

In the US, the Social Security number is the identifier of choice. Colleges put them on student IDs. Some states place them on drivers' licenses. They are also collected by thousands of retailers and charities who do not require them for business.

The overuse of the number, critics say, illustrates the abuse of consumer privacy in the name of commercial expedience. Consumer groups are beginning to ask companies to take more precautions, such as performing deep background checks on account applicants.

They say companies should be required to call customers to verify a change in address. They also say credit reporting agencies - consumers' last line of defense with their financial information - must pay closer attention to discrepancies between their records and new accounts.