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ID theft tops list of consumer fraud

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WASHINGTON — When one identity thief was done, it appeared on paper that Chicago attorney Ted Wern was not only a deadbeat but a criminal.

"He took my name and information and started running amok with it," Wern said. He thinks the thief went through his mail or garbage for the information in 1998.

Using Wern's name and Social Security number, the ID thief applied for and got at least four credit cards and ran up nearly $50,000 in bills. The thief also opened a checking account with a Georgia bank and wrote thousands of dollars in bad checks.

Then whenever the thief was pulled over for a traffic violation without a license, he started giving out Wern's information, building a litany of charges including a drunken driving arrest in Ohio.

He was released, but that encounter led authorities last year to arrest Terre A. Stevens for the identity fraud crimes. This month Stevens was sentenced to six months in prison and four years probation, according to court officials in Mansfield, Ohio.

"I am angry, but in many cases theft of your identity is something you can't control," Wern said. "You have to just do your best to clear it up."

Thousands of others had similar complaints last year with identity theft accounting for more than 40 percent of consumer-fraud complaints, the Federal Trade Commission said Wednesday.

Identity theft complaints far exceeded other areas of fraud such as deceptive Internet auctions and lotteries, the agency said.

"We've seen an explosion in this crime and it's not going away," said Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a San Diego-based consumer group.

Givens said consumers should look at their credit reports twice a year, shred personal documents before throwing them away and cleanse wallets of old receipts and printed Social Security numbers.

However, she cautioned: "You could take all the preventative steps and still become a victim."

It cost the average victim more than $1,000 to clean up the mess left by identity thieves, the FTC said.

The high number of identity theft complaints last year may partly reflect the FTC's increasing emphasis on investigating this kind of fraud and its use of a toll-free number to receive those complaints, said Howard Beales, the agency's director of consumer protection. That is why the complaint numbers can't be compared with previous years to show a trend, he said.

After identity theft, the top consumer fraud complaints of 2001 were problems with Internet auctions and deceptive trial offers and charges from Internet and computer services.

Credit card fraud accounted for 42 percent of identity theft complaints, followed by scams where phone or utility accounts were created in a person's name without his or her knowledge.

In some cases, hackers have been able to penetrate big corporations' databases and download credit card numbers and other data.

The District of Columbia had the highest rate of identity theft in 2001 with 77 victims for every 100,000 people. California and Nevada followed with 45 and 41 victims per 100,000 people, respectively.