GRANITEVILLE, -- The nightmare started with a telephone call at Gail Morgan's workplace.
A bank employee was on the line, demanding to collect on an overdue credit card account of nearly $4,000. Soon after, two other banks wanted their money for credit card bills totaling more than $9,000.
Ms. Morgan figured the banks simply had the wrong person. As the Graniteville woman told them, she had never applied for their cards, let alone run up a bill of $13,000 that she couldn't afford.
As it turned out, the cards were set up by someone else using her Social Security number, and the overdue bills had now stained her credit record.
Ms. Morgan, a longtime secretary for the Aiken County school district and a proud grandmother, had just experienced what thousands of people across the country fall prey to every year: identity theft.
Officials at Visa USA Inc. and MasterCard International estimate overall fraud losses from their member banks are in the hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Identity theft has become a problem so widespread that 15 states, including Georgia, have passed laws addressing the crime. In Georgia, a person convicted of financial identity fraud faces 10 years in prison and restitution. South Carolina has not passed laws related to identity theft.
Arrests for financial crimes totaled 9,455 for fiscal year 1997, with similar numbers for the two previous years, according to the U.S. Secret Service.
Using a variety of methods, criminals steal credit card numbers, driver's license numbers, Social Security numbers, automated teller machine cards, telephone calling cards and other key pieces of individuals' identities. They use the information to impersonate their victims, spending as much money as they can as quickly as possible before moving on to other victims.
"I am trying to alert the public that it does happen," Ms. Morgan said. "I had no idea. You could have knocked me over with a feather the day the bank called me on the job. I had no idea people would be this dishonest."
In Ms. Morgan's case, an Aiken County sheriff's investigation led to charges against Gail Hamilton Britain, 39, of New Ellenton, on three counts of financial transaction card fraud. The charges are pending in court.
For Ms. Morgan, it's a story of fraud and frustration.
"I felt very raped of my privacy," she said. "I lost my identity."
After Ms. Morgan learned of the large amount of money owed, tears streamed down her face as she pondered her future: How would she clear her name? Could she go to jail? Would the banks believe her?
Ms. Morgan contacted sheriff's officers and worked with the banks and Equifax, a credit reporting company, to get the bills cleared off her credit record.
"There are so many ways that someone can get your Social Security number, and that's all it takes," she said.
It has been a nightmare she doesn't want anyone else to go through.
How do identity thieves get personal information?
Stealing a wallet or purse is the old-fashioned way. They also can fish credit card slips and loan or credit applications from the trash when businesses and banks do not shred the documents. Or a thief can snatch the information from the nearest mailbox.
In Ms. Morgan's case, investigators believe it was an inside job by Ms. Britain when she worked at Belk department store at Aiken Mall. That's where Ms. Morgan has had a charge card since the early 1970s.
Authorities theorize that Ms. Morgan's personal information also could have been obtained when Ms. Britain worked as a part-time real estate agent. Ms. Morgan had given personal information when she refinanced her home and the information was easily available to real estate agents through the Mortgage Reporting Center.
Investigators believe that Ms. Britain used a pre-approved credit card application sent to her in 1996 from a Delaware bank and sent it in with Ms. Morgan's Social Security number. Ms. Britain changed the New Ellenton address to her workplace on Silver Bluff Road and put her own telephone number on it, investigators said, adding that she also changed the name from Gail Britain to Gail Morgan-Britain, saying Morgan was her maiden name.
Information from that credit card was sold by the bank to other banks from Tennessee and California, and the perpetrator soon had credit cards from three banks. Over several months, hundreds of dollars were obtained through cash advances -- all on the credit record of the secretary from Graniteville.
Once the bills became overdue and payments weren't made, the credit card company sent them to a collection agency. A search of the credit history linked the cards to Gail Morgan of Graniteville. The Social Security number led to her workplace telephone number. And soon, the calls started.
Solicitor Barbara Morgan, who is prosecuting Ms. Britain in Aiken County, said she expects identity fraud to only get worse. Unfortunately, it is a difficult crime to investigate and prove, she said.
"You've got to go through layers and layers of paperwork," she said. "Corporate headquarters are in Pennsylvania, New York, New Jersey. That is what makes these cases so difficult. It involves a whole bunch of investigations and follow-up and proof."
In Gail Morgan's case, the solicitor's office has been struggling over handwriting samples to prove the suspect applied for the cards. But the solicitor is pressing forward because of her concern for what Gail Morgan went through.
"It's your whole identity," Barbara Morgan said. "Then she's got to prove she is who she says she is, not who they say they think she is.
"Her outrage was so appropriate and she wants to know -- how did she get the information. Hopefully, we'll be able to give her the answers."
REDUCE ACCESS to your personal data:Do not carry extra credit cards, your Social Security card, birth certificate or passport in your wallet, except when needed.Install a locked mailbox at your residence to reduce mail theft, or use a post office box.When you order new checks, do not have them sent to your home's mailbox. Pick them up at the bank.Mail bills at a post office.
CREDIT CARDS: Reduce the number of credit cards you actively use to a bare minimum.Keep a list of all your credit cards, account numbers, and telephone numbers of the customer service and fraud departments in a secure place so you can quickly call your creditors in case your cards have been stolen. Do the same with your bank accounts.Order your credit report once a year to check for inaccuracies and fraudulent use of your accounts.Always take credit card receipts with you. Never toss them in a public trash container.
SOCIAL SECURITY NUMBERS: Protect your Social Security number. Release it only when absolutely necessary. It's the key to your credit and banking accounts and is the prime target of criminals.If a business requests your Social Security number, ask if it has an alternative number which can be used instead. Speak to a supervisor if your request is not heeded. If necessary, take your business elsewhere.Do not have your Social Security number printed on your checks.
If you become the victim of identity theft, it is important to act immediately to stop the thief's further use of your identity:Report the crime to police immediately. Give them as much documented evidence as possible. Get a copy of the police report. Be persistent.Immediately call all your credit card issuers. Get replacement cards with new account numbers. Follow-up in writing so you're protected in case of a dispute.Call the fraud units of the three credit reporting companies -- Experian (formerly TRW), Equifax and Trans Union. Report the theft of your credit cards or numbers. Ask that your accounts be flagged.
Source: Utility Consumers' Action Network