Originally created 06/14/05

Thieves now use phones to steal



STATESBORO, Ga. - Maj. Mark Cauley might be the picture of responsibility.

"I get on I-16 in the morning, go to work and at the end of the day, I go home," said the father of four who works for the Army Corps of Engineers in Savannah.

He doesn't often use a credit card. Other than his mortgage and a car payment, he has no outstanding debts.

But it doesn't matter.

Maj. Cauley and many more like him are falling victim to identity theft.

During a routine check of his credit report, Maj. Cauley discovered more than $2,800 in debts that had been turned over to collection agencies by three telephone companies.

T-Mobile, Cingular Wireless and Verizon Wireless claimed that Maj. Cauley had opened cell phone accounts with their companies.

Bills for the accounts had been sent to addresses in Savannah.

Maj. Cauley has never lived in Savannah, and the only cell phone account he's ever had is with All-Tel Wireless.

He has no idea how the error occurred, or whether he'll ever be able to restore his once-perfect credit.

"It took three months just to get information about what happened," he said. "I'm not even started getting it fixed yet."

Police say Maj. Cauley is an extreme example of a significant problem: identity theft involving cell phone accounts.

Sgt. Gene Roy investigates financial crimes for Savannah-Chatham Metropolitan Police. He estimates his department receives six to eight reports of identity theft involving cell phones per week.

The first indication that a crime might have been committed is when an individual receives a letter in the mail from a collection agency representing a company.

When the individual calls the collection agency, he learns that someone has opened a cell phone account in his name, using his Social Security number.

Typically, the victim's next response is to say the account is not his.

Once they report fraud, the cell phone companies refuse to give the individual any more information on the account, citing user privacy, Sgt. Roy said.

Victims often don't learn of the identity theft for months, sometimes years after it occurs.

That was the case for Maj. Cauley. By the time he reviewed his credit report, the telephone companies had already turned over the debts to collection agencies.

When it comes to investigating suspect fraud with a cell phone, the main obstacle for police is sometimes the phone companies.

"It seems there's a reluctance among some cell phone companies to provide us with the addresses given for these fraudulent accounts," Sgt. Roy said.

Some telephone companies cooperate with police, but enough of the private businesses are balking at police requests for customer information to make the ratio of cases solved about one in five, Sgt. Roy said.

"The most aggravating thing we hear is 'We can give you that information if you get a subpoena or a court order,'" he said.

T-Mobile spokesman Bryan Zidar said customers who suspect fraud should contact the company right away, even if the account has been turned over to a collection agency.

"They'll be put in touch with our fraud department," he said. "We'll ask the customer to send us an affidavit saying the account isn't theirs and a police report.

"If we suspect it's fraud, we'll remove any negative information from their account," Mr. Zidar said.

Check your credit

Consumers are entitled to one free report during any 12-month period.

- To request your credit report by phone, call (877) 322-8228. You will go through a simple verification process and your reports will be mailed to you.

- On the Web: Go to Central Source at www.annualcreditreport.com.