Purloined Lives

By GARY RIVLIN March 17, 2005

SAN FRANCISCO, March 16 - The phone lines are seldom quiet for long at the nonprofit Identity Theft Resource Center. But lately they have been ringing almost continually.

The calls come from people like Warren Lambert, who phoned on Feb. 18, the same day he received a letter conveying alarming news from ChoicePoint, a company that compiles data on millions of citizens. It was only one of more than 140,000 such letters ChoicePoint has mailed in recent weeks, informing people like Mr. Lambert that computer files containing their names, addresses and Social Security numbers, among other critical personal data, had been inadvertently sold to "several individuals, posing as legitimate business customers."

Mr. Lambert, a 67-year-old retiree living in San Francisco, called the identity theft hotline to ask not only what immediate steps he should take but, more important, "what I'm going to be exposed to."

The immediate steps were clear, according to Jay Foley, who with his wife, Linda, runs the ID theft counseling center from their home in San Diego. Mr. Lambert needed to phone the three major credit reporting agencies to find out if any credit cards or other accounts had been opened in his name -- none had, so far -- and then place a "fraud alert" on his accounts, to warn potential creditors not to open additional accounts in Mr. Lambert's name without fuller verification.

But Mr. Lambert also needed to understand that the privacy breach meant he now had something similar to an incurable virus -- a chronic condition he would need to monitor for the rest of his life.

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