Federal authorities busted up the largest identity theft ring in U.S. history today, charging three men who have reportedly raked in at least $2.7 million using stolen credit reports.

Over 20 people used the stolen information to assume people's identities, empty their bank accounts, and max out their credit cards. The story serves as a great reminder: When's the last time you checked your credit? What you don't know can hurt you.

In today's Motley Fool Take:

No Thanksgiving for Retail

The world's hugest retailer, Wal-Mart(NYSE: WMT), said Thanksgiving falling in the last week of November hurts its year-over-year comparisons for the month. November sales are running at the low end of its forecasted 2% to 4% range. This is hardly a shocker. This time last year, we were heavy into the holiday shopping season.

There's been much buzz about the "six fewer shopping days" this season. Thanksgiving is perilously close to Christmas, in the opinion of retail companies trying to spread holiday cheer. In response, they've stepped up promotions to lure customers into stores. From Target(NYSE: TGT) to Gap(NYSE: GPS) to Saks Fifth Avenue(NYSE: SKS), shoppers will find sales to spur their purchases this holiday season.

It also appears that they've cranked up the red-and-green blitz ahead of schedule this year. Been to a mall or discount store lately? Reindeers bedecked in tinsel cavorted with spooky ghosts before Halloween. It's almost as if the retailers thought "Calendar be damned" when it came to rolling out the "Jingle Bells" musak and fake snow.

The "six fewer days" mantra has been a bit overhyped, but it will likely have at least some effect. Of more concern, though, is the largely lackluster holiday sales predictions that have nothing to do with a time crunch. It's not as if shoppers will spend significantly more if they had those six extra days between holidays. Rising debt levels, a possible war with Iraq, salary worries, and general consumer malaise will dictate holiday shopping spending patterns.

Customers are expected to spend more this year than last on gifts, though -- just not as much as retailers would like. Estimates vary, but holiday shopping is expected to improve over last year by 4% to 5%. That's below the 5.6% reported rise in 2001, according to the National Retail Federation. The average projected household holiday shopping budget is up 6% to $1,656, at least according to the American Express Retail Index. Whether customers will stay within (or go below) budget is another thing entirely.

Interestingly, data shows the new key word is "value." It's now cool to spend less. Finding a bargain has cache, and even many wealthy shoppers are forgoing their chi-chi ways in favor of spending as little as possible. Bad news for Saks; good news for Wal-Mart and Target.

Now, of course, we're not suggesting that all wealthy folks will file into Tar-jay and outfit themselves in Mossimo, when they could be sporting Seven jeans and waving Prada handbags. However, the data is promising for discounters, which will likely have a better holiday showing than their upscale retail cousins. Which brings us back to Wal-Mart and its weak November -- chin up, old boy; December's right around the corner.

Quote of Note

"Happiness is having a large, loving, caring, close-knit family in another city." -- George Burns (1896-1996)

Homestore Investigation Snares Cendant

Homestore.com (Nasdaq: HOMS) is turning out to be a bad apple that's spoiling other companies. According to The New York Times, an investigation into the online real estate firm, which already involves AOL Time Warner(NYSE: AOL), has now expanded to include Cendant(NYSE: CD).

Three former Homestore executives agreed last month to plead guilty to fraudulently inflating revenue via "round-trip" transactions. With those deals, the firm wound up funneling money back to itself through "a major media company," widely reported to be AOL. Both have been forced to restate prior earnings.

Now Cendant -- a multi-faceted operation that provides rental car, fleet management, real estate, and hospitality services -- has entered the picture. The Times story says the three Homestore execs told prosecutors their firm had "counted increasingly on bogus deals with both Cendant and AOL Time Warner to help Homestore meet its quarterly revenue projections" in 2000 and 2001. Those deals are said to have passed advertising or license fees between the three in circular transactions that inflated revenue but generated no profit.

Cendant denies knowledge of an investigation and says it hasn't received revenue from Homestore since 1999.

If the allegations are true, however, the news is particularly troubling for its shareholders. In 1998, Cendant lost more than half its value after accounting irregularities were uncovered. Today, with the stock down 9% in early trading, investors must be scratching their heads, asking, "Will they never learn?"

Buy a Home or Retire?

What will it be -- buy a house or save for retirement? A piece of the American dream, or golden years that are truly golden?

That's a choice many Americans will have to make as the cost of a roof and four walls continues to rise. According to a report released by the Center for Housing Policy, the number of households devoting at least half of their salaries to housing has increased 67% over the past four years. That leaves the other half to cover food, transportation, insurance, clothing, and so on. For lower- to middle-income families, there's not much room for retirement savings.

And it doesn't look like the cost of housing will decrease anytime soon. This morning, the National Association of Realtors announced that previously owned, single-family home sales increased 6.1% in October. The increased demand has driven up the median price of a home 9.8% year over year to $159,600. Personal income just hasn't been able to keep up.

The solution for many families is to make do with much less house. In Retire at 45, Tom Jacobs (TMF Tom9) writes about a friend who might be able to retire a couple of decades ahead of schedule, partially due to keeping housing costs under control. Specifically, this fellow raises five kids in a three-bedroom home. Sounds crazy, but ask your grandparents (and even your parents) how much room they had growing up. As a country, we've become accustomed to bigger houses, even as family size has shrunk. Tom summarized this perfectly in his article:

According to the National Association of Home Builders, the average new house boasted 983 square feet in 1950, 1,500 in 1970, 2,080 in 1990, and 2,285 in 2000. At the same time, have you noticed families getting any larger? Since 1970, the average occupancy of that average house decreased 16%. We need 50% more space for 16% fewer of us.

The other solution, of course, is to find a way to save for retirement, no matter what. Though contributing to a 401(k) or an IRA is not compulsory, it's really not optional for people who want to retire one day. Even contributing a $100 or $200 a month will add up to thousands of dollars over the years.

Shameless Plug: Refinance and Save

Does saving potentially hundreds of dollars per month on your mortgage sound good to you? Mortgage rates remain historically low, so now might be the time to refinance and save yourself some dough. Our Home Center can help.

You Cruise, You Lose

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, the cruise industry is sick again. Literally. Figuratively. Indubitably.

Mysterious stomach viruses that broke out over the past few Holland America's Amsterdam sailings and the Disney(NYSE: DIS) Magic are putting a damper on the industry's efforts to bounce back after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Hoping to put the bon back in voyage, investors don't seem to be bothered with the recent wake of a Norwalk-like virus that has made roughly 500 passengers ill over the past three Holland America sailings. Shares of market leader Carnival(NYSE: CCL) have risen by nearly 30% off last month's lows. It has also been anchors away for rival Royal Caribbean(NYSE: RCL), whose stock has risen 50% over the past two months. The original Love Boat company, Princess(NYSE: POC), is in the middle of a love triangle, as Royal Caribbean and Carnival vie for its acquisitive affection. It's seen shares climb by almost 50% off summer lows.

But Love Boat's Doc is nowhere to be found, as the maladies aboard the Amsterdam and Magic will be more than just one-time hits after passenger refunds. As horror stories circulate about crews scrubbing and disinfecting to no avail, while buffets disappear and passengers rub elbows rather than shake hands, cruising aficionados may hold off on their next bookings.

The industry was one of the quickest to bounce back after 9/11. Cruise operators report slightly higher revenue this year, and new ships are still scheduled for delivery. Despite solid fundamentals still in place and all three cruising titans expecting double-digit earnings growth next year, it's not time to cash out of cruise stocks or sell the industry's players short. But keep an eye on the travel news. If the stomachaches, vomiting, and diarrhea continue, it will have an impact on industry capacity and the discounting of future voyages. Loose stools sink ships.

Discussion Board of the Day: Best Travel Spots/Tips

Setting sail anytime soon? Which cruise line is the best? Have you decided against taking a cruise because of the recent news? All this and more -- in the Best Travel Spots/Tips discussion board. Only on Fool.com.

Quick Takes

News from the retailing front isn't terrific today. Federated Department Stores(NYSE: FD), operator of Macy's and Bloomingdale's, reported same-store sales for the third week of November were lackluster. The company anticipates improvement ahead.

Gas prices have dropped by about a nickel nationwide over the past fortnight. According to the Lundberg survey (which measures 8,000 stations across the country), the average price for a gallon of gas on Friday was $1.44. Also dropping has been the price of personal computers, with some very serviceable units going for less than $600.

Well-respected mutual fund manager Robert Olstein is offering encouraging words to investors, according to the International Herald Tribune. According to the article, Olstein says, "Investors are missing the boat if they are too frightened or disgusted to research and buy stocks because of fears that all corporate books have been cooked." He also warns investors about unrealistic pension fund assumptions that may hurt many companies in 2003. (More: The Fool on Olstein.)

Our friends at the Securities and Exchange Commission have been busy. Today, they announced settlements with several companies accused of violating Regulation Fair Disclosure by giving selective information to Wall Street analysts but not us, the public. The firms include Raytheon(NYSE: RTN), Siebel Systems(Nasdaq: SEBL), Motorola(NYSE: MOT), and Secure Computing(Nasdaq: SCUR). Some money is being coughed up, but mostly the firms have agreed to behave from now on. On a related note, the SEC is looking into whetherComputer Associates(NYSE: CA) engaged in revenue shifting.

In breaking news out of Denmark, two Japanese pot-bellied pigs have been hired by a Copenhagen radio station to bring holiday cheer to employees and listeners. With America's premier pork producer, Smithfield Foods(NYSE: SFD), struggling lately, perhaps it might look into cutting a win-win deal with radio giant Clear Channel Communications(NYSE: CCU).

And Finally...

Today on Fool.com: From WorldCom to Grubman, we've got turkeys you wouldn't want mixed with your mashed potatoes.... Bill Mann wonders if the SEC is really interested in restoring investor faith.... Twenty tips to make it through unemployment, from our Fool Community.... Fun and games can teach you, and your kids, a lot about investing.... Matt Richey says Elite Information Group's CEO letters paint an ugly picture of management.... And in Fool's School, what causes recessions?

Bob Bobala, Robert Brokamp, Tom Jacobs, LouAnn Lofton, Bill Mann, Selena Maranjian, Rex Moore, Rick Munarriz, Matt Richey, Jackie Ross, Reggie Santiago, Dayana Yochim