NEW YORK -- California attorney Mari J. Frank vividly remembers the telephone call she received four years ago that turned her life upside down.
''Some bank I had never heard of wanted to know when I was going to repay the $11,000 I owed,'' she said. Frank thought at first there had been some simple mixup in names or account numbers. But the bank official had her name, her Social Security number and her date of birth on his records.
It turns out that Frank was a victim of identity theft, a growing phenomenon that affects at least 400,000 Americans a year, according to law enforcement officials.
The way it works is that thieves gather private information about an individual and create what Frank terms ''an evil twin.'' Some pose as telemarketers and solicit information by phone. Others steal mail, especially pre-approved credit cards or balance-transfer checks. Still others are ''Dumpster divers'' who retrieve financial documents from trash bins.
A thief uses the information to get credit card accounts, cell phones, even auto loans and mortgages, in the victim's name -- and the victim often doesn't have a clue until the thief defaults on payments and the bill collectors come calling.
Frank told a recent seminar on identity theft sponsored by the Chase Manhattan Corp. that it took her more than 500 hours -- and cost her more than $10,000 in legal fees -- to clear her credit record and clean up the more than $50,000 in bills left by her financial impersonator, including the tab for a red Mustang convertible. She has since written a book and developed a ''survival kit'' for identity theft victims.
What thieves want most is your Social Security number, Secret Service agent Ronald B. Sira told the Chase seminar. They also like drivers' licenses and birth certificates, he added, so ''they can procure genuine identification documents'' in the victim's name that won't be suspect.
So what can you do to protect yourself? Some things are obvious:
-- Don't give your Social Security number over the phone unless it is absolutely necessary. It's also a good idea to be frugal in providing your mother's maiden name, as that often is sought to verify your identity by banks and other financial institutions.
-- Put a lock on your mailbox. If you can't, then empty your mailbox as soon as possible after the mail is delivered. And don't leave letters with personal information in the box for pickup by the mail carrier; drop them in at the post office or in a U.S. Postal Service box.
-- Check your credit report at the three national credit bureaus at least once a year to make sure there's no unauthorized activity.
-- Buy a paper shredder and use it when you're disposing of old financial records, including tax returns, or unwanted credit card offers.
-- Don't leave printed receipts behind at bank machines or gas pumps.
-- Don't put credit card or other personal information on a Web site that isn't secure.
If you're a victim, there are a number of steps to take -- and quickly -- to prevent the identity thief from continuing to use your name and to begin fixing your credit record.
First, call all of the national credit bureaus and ask to have a ''fraud alert'' attached to your file.
Next contact all creditors, by phone and in writing, to inform them of the problem.
Call your local police, who may be able to act under state consumer protection laws.
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