In this Rossen Report: Extreme identity theft. New, brazen criminals are so good at stealing your information, even the government believes them. TODAY National Investigative Correspondent Jeff Rossen reports.
More from TODAY.com
TODAY's Takeaway: 'Princeton Mom' says mate, don't wait; Miles O'Brien talks life after amputation
What you missed TODAY: "Princeton Mom" asserts "it's all on women" to find husbands, NBC News exposes war's impact on Syri...
- Oscar selfie drawn with pencils in new time-lapse video
- Smartie pants! New clothing line's models are all women with Ph.Ds
- Debunked: Cohabitating couples not more likely to divorce
- Awww! Rolling Stones' Keith Richards pens picture book for kids
- TODAY's Takeaway: 'Princeton Mom' says mate, don't wait; Miles O'Brien talks life after amputation
We've been hearing about ID theft for years: Criminals buying things and ruining your credit. But now they're taking it to an all-new level, actually out there living as you: Getting jobs as you, going to the doctor as you, buying homes, even filing taxes as you. And you don't even know it.
It happened to an innocent schoolteacher who's still living the nightmare. Candida Guitierrez, a married kindergarten teacher in Texas, wanted the American dream: good job, new home, all of it. But when she applied for a mortgage, she got the shock of her life: Denied for bad credit in a different state!
Candida told us: "They said, 'Well, it's basically the house in Kansas and the cars you still have on your account.' And I said 'No, I haven't even visited Kansas, there has to be a mistake.'"
It turns out there was a Candida Guitierrez living in Kansas with the same Social Security number, same date of birth, same everything. But investigators say she was an identity thief who had stolen Candida's information to buy a house in Topeka, get a job at a food company, and allegedly get medical care for the birth of her two children.
"It's basically someone else taking everything that you are, and ruining it," the real Candida said.Video: Band of family thieves robs stores across the U.S.
Doucments show that Candida's impersonator got away with it for 10 years. The fake Candida even tricked the government into giving her a real driver's license with her own photo. Federal prosecutors say she didn't stop there, going to the Social Security Administration and claiming she was the victim of identity theft. "That's probably the most brazen act that's alleged, her trying to pretend to the U.S. government that she's actually the person whose identity she's stolen," Brent Anderson, an assistant U.S. attorney, said.
And the federal government almost bought it, telling the real Candida: "Prove you're really you."
"It's outrageous!" Candida told us. "Not only am I a victim, but I'm also having to defend myself against the people who are supposed to protect me and defend my rights."
Eventually police arrested the suspect: Her real name is Benita Cardona-Gonzalez, in the U.S. illegally, now charged with aggravated identity theft. It's still unclear how she stole the information.
More Rossen Reports
"If you're not looking for it, it's almost impossible to detect," Todd Feinman, a security expert and CEO of Identity Finder, told us. "Once an identity thief has our Social Security number and name, they can go out and get addresses, dates of birth. And then with that information, take out a driver's license, a credit card, open up a bank account. And that's really when the worst type of identity fraud starts to occur."
Feinman said it can go on for years, undetected, because most of us don't check our credit reports — and the criminals know it. "All it takes is one person to really want to stick with you and keep using your identity to commit their crime," Feinman said. "Pretty much sky's the limit."
It was in Candida's case. She's still fighting the credit agencies. "Even though (Cardona-Gonzalez is) now in jail, it's going to take me at least two more years to clear my credit," she told us. "I kept thinking, why me? Why is this happening? What did I do to deserve this?"
The suspect pled not guilty. Now she's in jail awaiting trial. We reached out to her lawyer, but never heard back.
Experts say the best ways to protect yourself: Don't store anything on your computer that has your Social Security number, including tax returns and medical records. Thieves can hack it easily.
Also, never carry your Social Security card in your wallet: If it's stolen, major problem. Keep it in a safe place.
And the final line of defense: Check your credit report at least once a year. It's free. Visit AnnualCreditReport.com, call 1-877-322-8228, or fill out the Annual Credit Report Request form and mail it to Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281.
ADDENDUM: Some viewers and readers have pointed out that Medicare cards contain Social Security numbers. Experts say that if you need to carry a Medicare card, make a photocopy of it, cut out the last four numbers of your Social Security number from it, and carry that copy with you rather than your real Medicare card, which you should keep safely at home. They say to only take the original Medicare card with you on your first visit to a new provider.
Have an idea for a future edition of Rossen Reports? We want to hear from you! To send us your ideas, click here.
© 2013 MSNBC Interactive. Reprints