Prince George's County is considering legislation that would provide greater relief to people whose identities are stolen and used to commit fraud.

If it passes, the county would be one of the first local jurisdictions in the country to offer assistance to victims of "identity theft." The law also would make it a local crime to steal personal information such as a person's Social Security number to apply for credit cards or to deplete bank accounts.

The legislation would require the police department to provide to the victim free copies of all public records relating to the investigation. The victim also would be a participant in all legal proceedings, and county agencies would have to assist the person to correct mistaken information.

"This government will look at them as victims of crime, and the agencies will be at their disposal treating them as victims of crime," said County Council Chairman M.H. Jim Estepp (D-Upper Marlboro), who introduced the legislation yesterday. "I'm not sure as a nation we recognize how devastating this can be to someone."

Estepp called identity theft a growing problem. The U.S. Government Accounting Office found last year that such crimes increased sixteenfold from 1992 to 1997.

The measure is similar to a state law that goes into effect next week. The state law also stipulates that criminals must pay restitution to the victims but does not provide for all of the relief included in the Prince George's legislation.

"It seems to me like the Prince George's County bill is an excellent extension of the foundation we have in the state law," said state Sen. Leonard H. Teitelbaum (D-Montgomery), who proposed the state legislation. "I applaud their efforts."

Maryland is one of 15 states with specific laws against identity theft. Congress made identity theft a federal crime in 1998.

Those convicted of breaking the state law are subject to a $5,000 fine and one year in prison. A person convicted of breaking the county law would be subject to a $1,000 fine and six months in jail.

County police spokesman Royce Holloway said current law provides little support for victims of identity theft.

"We've all heard the horror stories," he said. "It messes up their credit. It literally makes them a criminal."

The legislation is "going to assist the victim in clearing this off their record," he said.

Beth Grossman, identity theft program manager for the Federal Trade Commission, said one of the primary purposes of the new laws is to recognize that individuals whose names are stolen also are victims--not just banks and other financial institutions.

The federal law made the FTC responsible for establishing a complaint and consumer education program for victims of identity theft. (The hot line number is 877-FTC-HELP. People also can log on to a Web site at www.consumer.gov/idtheft)

The agency also is establishing a tracking system of consumer complaints to help law enforcement officers identify patterns of abuse.

But Grossman said federal authorities have mostly focused on larger schemes and on organized crime, leaving a gap for state and local law enforcement agencies to fill.

She said Prince George's County is one of the few localities in the country to consider passing its own law.

"This is a growing problem," she said. "It cannot be addressed simply at the federal level."

The council's public safety and fiscal management committee will review the bill Oct. 7.