In the last five years, more than 27 million Americans have had their identity stolen and, experts predict, more than 50 million Americans will fall victim to identity theft in the next five years.

Colorado professor Anita Jantz is one of those unfortunate enough to have had their identity stolen. While searching online for a fixed rate mortgage, Jantz provided her Social Security number to two or three companies she felt could offer her a good rate. Months later, when applying for the mortgage, a loan officer reviewed her credit report and shared shocking news.

In addition to my current mortgage, two more were recently added. After further investigation, I also discovered three additional mortgages. In total it was almost $1 million of loans, Jantz says.

Jantz spent months filing police reports and making dozens of phone calls then signed up with ID Watchdog, an identity theft monitoring service.

We need to understand that prevention isn't a feasible concept now, says Justin Yurek, president of ID Watchdog. If a thief wants your identity, they'll get it. No matter how careful you are they could hack into a database, they could physically steal a laptop, there is no guarantee.

Even when consumers frequently check their credit reports they can become victims because 70 percent of identity theft crimes have nothing to do with credit reports. A thief could steal your wallet with your driver's license in it and commit a crime, open a P.O. Box, get a cell phone, put utilities in your name. That has nothing to do with credit, says Yurek.

According to the United States Federal Trade Commission, identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the country. It cost businesses and consumers more than $56 billion in 2005 and most people do not discover their information has been stolen until 12 months after a thief first uses it. Worse, fewer than one in 700 identity theft crimes lead to a conviction.

Despite that, taking preventative measures is still worth the time. The FTC recommends taking the following steps to minimize your chances of having your identity stolen.

* Shred financial documents and paperwork with personal information before discarding them.

* Do not carry your Social Security card with you and do not write your Social Security number on checks.

* Do not click on links in unsolicited e-mails. If an e-mail appears to be from your financial institution asking for personal information, go to the organization's official Web site and/or call to ask if the e-mail is from them.

* Computer, credit card and banking passwords should not be obvious. Avoid using your mother's maiden name, any part of your Social Security number or your date of birth as your password.

* Stop the pre-approved credit card offers. Calling (888) 5 OPT OUT removes your name from the marketing mailing lists of all three credit agencies.

Since there is currently no foolproof way to guarantee your identity won't be stolen, stay alert for signs that someone may be using your identity.

* If you fail to receive bills or other mail on time or as expected, call the sender directly. A missing bill could mean an identity thief has taken over your account and changed the mailing address.

* You begin receiving credit cards you did not apply for.

* You have been denied credit or are receiving less favorable credit terms -- a higher interest rate or lower credit limit than you've received in the past.

* You begin receiving calls from debt collection agencies or businesses regarding merchandise you did not purchase.

FTC statistics show that once a consumer becomes a victim of identity theft, the average time spent repairing the problem is between 400 and 600 hours. Companies like ID Watchdog can save time and hassle by offering identity theft monitoring and prevention.

The services scrutinize customer information and guarantee that if thieves slip something past, the company will fix any problems the customer experiences and help them regain and retain their identity.