LAST YEAR, Tamara Price got a call from a collection agency demanding $6,000 for calls made on six cell phones. But Price has never owned a cell phone.
That's when she discovered someone had stolen her identity and used her Social Security number to order the cell phones.
"I was really angry that someone could do this," said Price, an auditor with the state. "I kept saying to myself, `What accounts and other things has this person received under my Social Security number?' "
Unfortunately, Price has lots of company.
Firm numbers are hard to come by, but an estimated 500,000 to 750,000 Americans last year were victims of identity theft, reports the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit group in San Diego.
Fraud experts agree that the number is rising at an alarming rate. The Federal Trade Commission said it received 86,182 complaints of identity theft last year, up from 31,103 the year before. On a per capita basis, Maryland ranked fourth in the nation last year, with 1,976 identity-theft victims, the FTC says.
The surge caused Attorney General John Ashcroft to recently increase efforts to prosecute identity-theft cases and to endorse legislation introduced this month by California Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein that would stiffen penalties.
Maryland, too, is beefing up its identity-theft penalties. Beginning in October, identity cases involving the theft of $500 or more will be a felony, punishable by as much as a $5,000 fine and five years in prison.
Cases under $500 will remain a misdemeanor, although potential jail time will be increased from one year to 18 months.
The most common use of stolen identities is opening credit card accounts.
Basically, all it takes is a mailing address and phone number as well as the victim's name, Social Security number and date of birth, said Joanna Crane, programmer of the FTC's identity-theft program. A mother's maiden name is usually needed to use an account already opened, she said.
Often personal and financial information is easy to get.
Thieves buy or barter stolen credit card numbers over the Internet. A waiter may swipe your card information when you pay your bill with plastic.
Thieves eavesdrop at pharmacies and doctors' offices as patients give out personal information, said Jay Foley, director of consumer and victim services at the identity theft center.
Thieves steal financial statements from mailboxes or dig up papers thrown in the trash.
Unless the statements are shredded into confetti they can be used; thieves have been known to tape together strips of shredded materials to get information, Foley said.
And there are plenty of scams to get people to divulge personal data.
The Internal Revenue Service this month warned against phony letters stating that a bank is updating its records and needs customers to fill out a tax form and return it by fax. The information is being used to steal identities and bank deposits, the IRS said.
By law, consumers are liable for the first $50 of unauthorized charges on a credit card. For a debit card, the liability could be as much as $500 if the theft of the card isn't reported within two days of discovery. Even so, banks and card companies often waive these charges.
"The worst part is the loss of control of your personal information," Crane said. "Once it has been compromised, you don't have any way to stop it from being passed along to a different identity thief or criminal organization."
While it may be impossible to completely protect yourself against identity theft, you can make it harder for thieves, experts said.
Don't carry your Social Security card with you and give out the number only when necessary. Consumers are often asked for Social Security numbers by retailers and other businesses when it's unnecessary.
"Just because someone asks you for it, you don't automatically have to give it," said Carolyn Cheezum, a spokeswoman for the Social Security Administration.
Reduce pre-approved credit card offers arriving in your mailbox by calling 1-888-567-8688, a service set up by credit reporting agencies, Foley said. Your name will be removed from mailing lists for pre-approved credit card applications, he said.
Pay attention to the privacy policies of companies you do business with, Foley said. "Does your cable company share your information? If so, ask them not to," he said.
Reduce the number of credit cards you carry and cancel inactive accounts that someone could use without your knowledge, said Ed Skrodzki, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's Baltimore field office.
Shred pre-approved credit card applications and other financial statements into confetti.
Check your credit report once a year to make sure no one has opened an account in your name. Marylanders can get a free copy once a year by calling Experian at 888-397-3742; Trans-Union at 800-888-4213; and Equifax at 800-685-1111.