There are still enough people who believe this one to consider it widespread enough to talk about here.
There was a case back in the 1990s where a woman was a victim of an identity thief. This person used her name for over a year and a half, and ruined her credit (and a big chunk of her life in general). I remember seeing the story on one of those “news magazine” programs (20/20 or something), and I’m pretty sure there has been at least one made-for-TV movie about it.
It’s probably on Lifetime every now and then. The title is something like [Adjective] [Noun], the [Person’s Name] Story. Then again, all their movie titles are like that. They’re like Mad Libs.
Anyway, these days it’s far more common for thieves to take your identity for a “joyride” of a couple weeks’ duration. They’ll rack up all the charges/goods/services they can, then move on to the next victim. Oh, it’s still just as big a pain for you to fix, but cases of long-term cloning over the course of months and years are rare now.
Part of the reason is technology. People catch the theft much sooner, and more and more financial providers have built-in safeguards, which can provide some protection, or at least early detection. I think another reason is that identity theft has increasingly become the realm of organized crime. With a backlog of identities to work with, they can use them for a short time, then move on to the next identity before the fraud alerts start showing up.
None of this is exactly comforting, I suppose. Like I said before, it still takes you a long time and a lot of hassle to clear up any identity theft. But those widely publicized cases of long-term identity theft are the exception rather than the rule nowadays.