Stick 'Em Up? Not Anymore. Now It's Crime By Keyb

KATHRYN RAMBO GOT A taste of the future recently, and she didn't like it one bit. Sure, she had a new $22,000 Jeep, five credit cards, an apartment and a $3,000 loan listed in her name. Problem was, the 28-year-old special-events planner from Los Gatos, Calif., hadn't asked for any of it. A woman impersonating her had, with the help of information lifted from Rambo's employee-benefits form. Straightening out the mess took months of angry phone calls, court appearances and legal expenses. And then there was the Kafkaesque chore of proving that she was, in fact, herself. Says Rambo: ""I was going around saying, "I am who I am!' ''

Rambo was a victim of ""identity theft,'' an increasingly common crime committed by increasingly sophisticated swindlers. All they need is your full name or Social Security number, which they drop into Internet databases that serve up info like your address, phone number, employer or driver's license number. Then they're on their way - applying for credit using your good name. Security experts say identity theft's high profitability and low penalties could make it as common as auto theft in the coming century. ""It'll be the next growth industry in crime,'' says Ann Cavoukian, privacy commissioner of Ontario and coauthor of ""Who Knows: Safeguarding Your Privacy in a Networked World.''

And identity theft is only one new form of millennial malfeasance. While new technology and widening global trade have made enterprise more efficient, both have also opened new cracks in society's defenses. Take commerce. As much as $117 billion in financial transactions will occur on-line by the year 2000, according to market researchers IDC. As banks go digital - in operations like trading stocks, paying bills, making loans - the robbers will, too. ""If Willie Sutton were alive today, he'd be learning HTML coding,'' says Paul Saffo, a technology forecaster in Menlo Park, Calif. The sheer size and speed of information networks will make them impossible to monitor closely. Indeed, all sorts of transgressions are already occurring in the shadowy corners of the Internet. Cyber-pirates, for example, register phantom ships on the computers of maritime agencies. After taking out huge insurance policies on these virtual boats, the crooks ""sink'' them with the stroke of a computer key and file multimillion-dollar claims. Poachers in Zambia now take e-mail orders, a la L.L. Bean. A bigger threat may be electronic money laundering. As the Internet becomes a place where money changes hands, strong cryptography will become the digital equivalent of armored cars: a way for people to protect their transactions. Which is exactly what worries the Feds. They don't want encryption to be too strong, lest money launderers use it to transfer funds under their radar. To an extent, this is already happening. ""We're simply losing the ability to break into their information structures,'' says John Arquilla, a Rand Corp. consultant.

Our increasing reliance on computers may also leave us vulnerable to the terrorists of the future. Computer viruses, though so far not the problem once projected, are one threat. Another is the electromagnetic pulse weapon, which would use ultra-high-frequency radio waves to scramble hard drives and fry computer chips. It wouldn't kill anyone directly, but it could jeopardize lives by knocking out vital movements of natural gas, oil and electricity.

But don't panic yet. Identity theft, for instance, won't catch on right away; crooks are by and large a conservative bunch, attached to their Saturday-night specials. And by the time it does, authorities may have installed something called biometric identification. Straight out of ""Mission: Impossible,'' biometric ID turns body parts into PIN numbers. Retina and palm scans already grant entrance to buildings. Even body odor or DNA samples could become ""passwords.'' ""Effectively,'' says George J. Tomko of Mytec Technologies, ""people would walk around without any paper ID at all.'' In that world, at least, Kathryn Rambo would be safe - as long as no one stole her eyeballs.