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Computer hacker's fingers did $21,000 of walking

When Edwin Wilson looked in his mail box Wednesday morning, he thought he had received some sort of book from GTE.

He hadn't. What he received from the phone company was a shock. The inch-thick packet, which cost GTE $2.90 to send, was his monthly bill. And it said Wilson owed $20,949.64.

"I was flabbergasted. I couldn't imagine where I got $20,000 worth," he said Friday, with the 112-page bill spread out in front of him.

The Wilsons were victims of calling card fraud, though GTE has assured them they won't have to pay the bill. Somebody, apparently lots of people, got hold of their card number and started charging calls across the globe. From Sweden. Switzerland. Finland. Italy. Germany. And a host of American cities.

"It happens all the time. Believe me, this is a billion-dollar-a-year industry," AT&T spokeswoman Julie Spechler said of calling card scams.

Just ask Herbert L. Schwinzer, who opened his GTE bill in Largo on Wednesday to find he supposedly owed nearly $14,000. The Wilsons read about that in the Times on Friday and decided people should know how serious the problem seems to be. In that case, Schwinzer recalled giving his access code to a woman who called and identified herself as a GTE representative.

The Wilsons' case is more ominous. These are not people who would easily hand over information like charge card numbers. They won't even make credit card purchases over the phone.

"I'm awfully careful about that kind of thing," Mrs. Wilson said, noting that her husband hadn't even used the card for more than a year.

The Wilsons got hit by a computer hacker, and there is little they could have done to prevent it.

Spechler said the culprit was arrested in Sweden recently, but she said she could provide no information. An AT&T investigator told her the man had somehow gotten hold of the Wilson's phone number. Then, playing around with numbers, he found the four-digit code needed to access the Wilsons' calling card. He probably had never seen the Wilsons and knew nothing about them.

"We're seeing a lot of hackers now in Europe," said Carmen Farinas of the Communications Fraud Control Association in Washington, D.C. She said $2-billion worth of bogus billings are wracked up annually, and thieves are getting increasingly sophisticated.

But Farinas said it's unusual for a hacker to hit a residential line like the Wilsons'.

More commonly, they gain access to a business's PBX or voice mail system. Once inside the system, they play around with numbers, access an outside line, and call away, on the company's tab. Numerous corporations have been hit with bills loaded with hundreds of thousands of dollars in bogus charges.

GTE spokesman John Strickling said people who obtain calling card numbers generally either sell the numbers or sell people phone calls. They stand at a public phone and, for a few dollars, offer calls anywhere in the world.

GTE will not disclose how many such cases it is investigating or its record in convicting calling card thieves, Strickling said.

"It's a very difficult crime to prosecute," said Spechler of AT&T.

She said because of cases like the Wilsons', AT&T now offers phone cards that are not "telephone-based," meaning the card numbers do not contain the owner's telephone number. That means a thief has to play around with far more numbers to find the proper access code.

Communications officials offer a number of other tips for avoiding telephone fraud:

Beware of anyone who calls and asks you for your card numbers over the phone.

When charging a call to your card over the phone, make sure no one can overhear the number you provide the operator.

If punching in the number yourself, block the phone so that no one can see the number you are charging on.

_ Information from Times files was used in this report.