It seems that not even a multimillion-dollar sponsorship deal with a card company can protect someone against credit theft.

Tiger Woods, who has endorsed American Express Co. since 1997, testified last week in Sacramento, Calif., in the trial of a man accused of running up $17,000 of debt on credit cards he had obtained in Mr. Woods’ name.

Anthony Lemar Taylor, of Sacramento, was arrested in July and charged with six counts of felony identity fraud and perjury. Mr. Taylor, 29, was said to have used Mr. Woods’ Social Security number to obtain the card accounts.

The case of Mr. Woods, who is No. 1 in the Professional Golfers’ Association ranking, illustrates how simple it is for anyone to become a victim of identity theft. Law enforcement officials say the crime is on the rise, and they blame card companies for making credit so readily available, and for relying on easy-to-obtain information such as Social Security numbers and mothers’ maiden names as identifiers.

Merchants are also taking the heat. A tight labor market has meant that retailers are scurrying for employees and often failing to train them to detect fraudulent payment instruments, or even to check signatures on cards.

Identity theft is a problem that predates the Internet, but technological advances are also contributing to the rise of check and card theft. John Garlinger, a spokesman for the Social Security Administration, said that a thief who obtained a list of 1,000 Social Security numbers was recently caught trying to sell them on the eBay Inc. auction site for $1 each.

“We’re certainly seeing more identity theft with Social Security numbers because of the Internet,” Mr. Garlinger said. The extent of the crime is “almost unknowable,” and seems to be escalating because “we use Social Security numbers for more things than in the past,” he said.

Last year attempted check fraud at the nation’s commercial banks doubled from two years earlier, to $2.2 billion, according to the latest American Bankers Association survey on deposit account fraud. The credit bureau Trans Union Corp. said it fielded about 700,000 inquires about identity theft this year, 20 times as many as in 1992.

The alleged scam involving Mr. Woods seems fairly typical. Law enforcement officials would not say how Mr. Taylor got Mr. Woods’ Social Security number. Once he did, they say, he was able to get credit cards under the golf pro’s real name, Eldrick T. Woods, and used those cards to obtain televisions, videocassette recorders, furniture, and the use of a luxury car.

Robin Shakely, the deputy district attorney in Sacramento, said the incident has gotten little public notice because Mr. Woods’ legal team has tried to keep it “hush-hush.”

Apparently, Mr. Woods is far from the only celebrity who has had such an experience. Linda Foley, founder and director of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego, said she was recently taped to appear on the Montel Williams’ talk show in a segment about identity theft. Mr. Williams, she said, had himself been an identify theft victim.

While identity theft more commonly occurs among people who are not famous, some “people have names similar to famous people,” said Tom Arnold, chief technology officer for CyberSource Corp., an e-commerce transaction and risk management vendor. “You’re speaking to one.”

In recognition of the growing problem, President Clinton asked the Treasury Department to convene a national summit on identity theft, which was held in March in Washington. Bankers and credit card company executives were among the speakers.

Boris Melnikoff, senior vice president and corporate director of special services for Wachovia Corp., named three steps that could deter identity theft: the use of biometrics, the use of a state driver’s license database, and the elimination of Social Security numbers on paychecks, bank statements, and other financial documents.

Karen Trimmer, assistant vice president of risk management at First USA, said her company, a major credit card issuer, has taken such actions as mailing follow-up letters to consumers who have requested credit cards, to make sure they received the cards, and mailing follow-up confirmation letters to customers’ old and new addresses upon receipt of a change-of-address request.

Despite the efforts of individual companies and government agencies, the low-tech practice of “trash-diving” still proves fruitful for criminals intent of stealing people’s vital data from discarded receipts. Mr. Arnold said Social Security numbers can be particularly effective, because they are used in employee records, medical records, and tax records. Mail offers of instant credit from card companies and retail stores are particularly useful to these fraudsters, he said.

Ms. Foley said that while celebrities can “assign someone else to clean up the mess,” it takes the average person approximately 175 hours to clear their names. Victims must write letters, make phone calls, and fill out police reports.

“The burden of the investigation falls on the shoulders of the victim,” Ms. Foley said. “You are guilty until you prove yourself innocent. It is assumed you are trying to get out of paying a bill.”

Ms. Foley, who said she founded her consumer organization after falling prey to identity theft, suggested that companies routinely shred personal documents and conduct more vigorous background checks on new employees before giving them access to sensitive information.

Merchants, too, should be more vigilant, Ms. Foley said. “Most of these clerks who are processing these instant credits are minimally-trained personnel. Very few stores do any training at all on identity theft.”

Judy Tenzer, a spokeswoman for American Express, would not discuss what happened to Mr. Woods, whose deal to represent the company runs through 2007. But she did suggest simple precautions that consumers can take, such as looking carefully at all bank and credit card statements, using different passwords for different accounts, and avoiding using their birthday as their password.


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