It first appeared last October as a blip in a checking account that had seen little activity. Account officers at Wilmington National Trust in Delaware made inquiries about the dozens of checks for $2,000 and $3,000 that suddenly started appearing in Patricia Ann Matthews' account, all written by William M. Cash.

The episode climaxed five months later, when Delaware state troopers beat down the door of a husband and wife team they believe are responsible for defrauding countless banks from Florida to Nevada to Connecticut, forging the identities of hundreds of people, and obtaining hundreds of fraudulent credit cards. At the time of the arrest, the couple was busy burning illicit cards and documents in a bathroom.

The couple - whose true identities took some time to establish - were arrested and are in jail in Delaware awaiting trial. But the tale of their alleged crime spree - which investigators can trace back to 1992 - highlights the rising incidence of card and check fraud that banks are grappling with.

Today's criminals are "using a PIN to rob a bank instead of a gun," said American Bankers Association spokesman John Hall.

Check fraud cost banks $615 million in 1995, according to the most recent Federal Reserve study of the problem, versus $59 million for bank robberies.

Credit card losses from identity fraud are a small but growing problem, and a hard one to place a price tag on. MasterCard International Inc. said losses from identity fraud in 1996 were more than four times higher than in 1995 but still totaled less than 1% of the $498 million in fraud losses for the year.

In both check and credit card schemes, law enforcement officials are seeing an increasing prevalence of identity theft, as the Internet and other electronic communications ease access to confidential information.

In a case last month in San Francisco, a computer hacker was arrested for collecting 100,000 credit card numbers on the Internet. (He was released on bail on the condition he never go near a computer again.) And the Delaware couple told police after their arrest that they routinely used Internet data bases at a local college library to find people - in "Who's Who in America" and elsewhere - to impersonate.

"A lot of the people who do this on an individual basis - just assume someone's identity - start because they're trying to hide from creditors or somebody else," said Michael Stenger, special agent in charge of the Secret Service's financial crimes division.

"Then they realize that they can produce financial gain from the situation, so they take the next step."

Such may have been the case with the couple apprehended in March by the Delaware State Police, whose real names are Cheryl and Roger Cullen but whose list of known aliases fills four pages of an Excel spreadsheet. At the time of their arrest, the couple had driver's licenses in 12 states under various names, had been married in seven states, and were responsible for well over $100,000 of bank losses on the East Coast alone, the police said.

It was only by searching the three-story Victorian home the couple had been renting for $900 a month that the police were able to determine their true identities: a birthday card the man had signed said, "I love you, Cheryl," and a list of errands she had written said, "Roger, would you please pick up the following ..."

Mr. Cullen said the loss of his driver's license after a drunken driving arrest five years ago spurred him to apply for a new one under a false name, according to Detective R. Scott Garland of the Delaware State Police, one of the two state troopers primarily responsible for cracking the intricate case.

From there, things snowballed.

"This is certainly one of the most unusual cases I have come across because of the volume of the identities and the lengths they went to to get them," Det. Garland said.

Immediately after Wilmington National Trust noticed the strange deposits in Ms. Matthews' account, the bank also noticed that the putative Ms. Matthews went on a check-writing and debit card binge against her inflated balances. The paper trail indicated purchases of expensive furniture, trips to casinos in Atlantic City, and a vacation to Acapulco.

By the time the bank officer in charge of the account began to do some checking, Ms. Matthews' supposed telephone number was disconnected. A second look at her application showed bogus information that the bank had never checked, including a false name of an employer.

When the bank put a freeze on the account, the couple called in outrage from Acapulco. The bank told them to come in and straighten it out, and, a few weeks later, the pair were actually spotted in the parking lot by the bank's chief investigator. But by the time the police had circled the branch, the couple were gone, in what was to be the first near-miss in a three-month game of cat and mouse.

Meanwhile, Detective Dennis M. Spillan of the Delaware State Police - he works in northern Delaware, Det. Garland in the southern part of the state - was investigating a string of credit card losses incurred by the Lowes department store chain. Lowes surveillance cameras had taped the same two people making transactions under eight different names, four male and four female. As it would turn out, each had more than a dozen accounts at Lowes.

In a typical scheme, Det. Spillan said, the couple would use a credit card to buy a Lowes gift certificate for $300, then go to a second store and buy a $340 television set, paying $40 in cash. Armed with a receipt that said "cash," they would go to a third store, return the television, and come home $340 richer.

"They did this to the tune of $13,000 in the tri-state area," Det. Spillan said.

In a second near-miss, Lowes employees spotted the couple and followed them to a store parking lot one day. The employees questioned them and wrote down their license plate number but did not detain them or call the police.

The license plate was traced to a David Alan Williams at an address that turned out to be a mailbox drop - like all the other addresses the police had found for the couple.

Photographs of the pair were run through computers nationally, and it turned out they were wanted under different names in at least five states, Det. Garland said.

But each of the identities belonged to a real person - one was chief executive of a Delaware hospital - so it was impossible for the police to draw up warrants for the criminals. If any of the innocent victims had been pulled over for a minor traffic violation, they could have been arrested at gunpoint.

Det. Garland felt frustrated and thought he had reached a dead end.

Det. Spillan couldn't let it rest. One day he ran the license plate through the computer again and found that the couple had applied to register a second car, this time in Maryland. The detective called the insurance agent, who coincidentally had just received a fax from the couple. They wanted to get insurance in a hurry. The agent told them to wait by the fax.

The police traced the fax to a mailbox store in Maryland, but the couple was gone by the time they arrived. However, a clerk at the store knew vaguely where they lived. By searching the posh neighborhood, the police found the car in a driveway.

It was 9 p.m. on March 18 when Maryland police surrounded the house, which had a grassy backyard overlooking Chesapeake Bay and a Cadillac and a Lincoln parked beside it.

Det. Garland wrote a hasty arrest warrant and drove two hours to Maryland. By midnight, a judge had signed the warrant, and the police knocked on the door. The residents refused to come out.

To gain forcible entry, the police needed another warrant, and it took until dawn to write one and get it signed by a magistrate.

At 8:30 a.m. March 19, Det. Garland and Det. Spillan kicked down the Cullens' door. They smelled smoke right away.

"We had pictured in our minds that they were burning everything," Det. Garland said.

Mr. Cullen was on the stairs in his bathrobe and his wife was upstairs in bed, both denying anything was wrong. The stench from the bathroom was unbearable, Det. Garland said: inside, there were records smoldering in the bathtub, the sink and a wastebasket.

Throughout the house were blank checks, photo IDs, bank statements, deposit slips, and credit cards from about a dozen states.

"There were fake New Jersey ID cards that hadn't even been filled out yet," Det. Spillan said. "We found health insurance cards in their alias names, $6,000 in cash, medical records in their aliases. Ninety-nine percent of the evidence was recovered."

The couple were interrogated. The woman refused to talk, but the man confessed. He said they had used information from "Who's Who" to apply for duplicate birth certificates and Social Security cards. From there, it was easy enough to gain credit.

The police also found books with titles like "How to Disappear and Never be Found." One thing the couple had learned was to assume identities of people whose birth years were far enough away from their own real ones that a computer search of the median age range could not detect them, Det. Garland said.

Mr. Cullen is an economics graduate of Syracuse University, the police confirm, who claims that he lost his job as a marketing executive at Dun & Bradstreet in 1992 and fell into crime after he was diagnosed with a terminal illness.

The police say the couple were married legally seven years ago under their real names and that they have not filed income tax returns for five years. Their well-appointed home in Maryland was filled with furniture bought with their hundreds of fraudulent credit cards and the float on hundreds more bad bank accounts, the police said.

"As a matter of policy, a lot of banks are trying to give customers access to their money right away, and these people are taking advantage of the banks' good nature in doing this to help their good customers out," Det. Spillan said. "Unfortunately, the banks become victims of it."

In Delaware, Cheryl Patricia and Roger William Cullen have been charged with theft, conspiracy, unlawful use of a credit card, criminal impersonation, and forgery. The state charges carry a typical jail sentence of 10 to 15 years upon conviction, the police said. However, the Secret Service last week agreed to take the case under federal jurisdiction, so further charges and possible penalties are likely.

Mr. Stenger of the Secret Service said his agency is seeing "an increase of these cases coming to our attention." More often, the criminals are paying corrupt bank employees to provide information.

A bill introduced in Congress by Sen. Jon Kyl R-Ariz., seeks stiffer penalties for identity impostors, said John Byrne, senior counsel at the ABA.

"We are as much victims here as others, because banks are on the hook under credit card laws," Mr. Byrne said. "We are as much, if not more, at risk than individuals."

Richard H. Urban, president of Card Alert Services of Arlington, Va., a card fraud detection and consulting company, said card associations have been improving safeguards against "dumpster divers," who forge credit cards using receipts culled from the trash.

But with hackers and sophisticated criminals like the Delaware couple, there are fewer options. "There's not really a lot you can do to stop that sort of thing other than to catch them," Mr. Urban said.

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