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The nightmare for the Fredonia teacher began when someone stole her identity and ran up $7,000 in credit-card debt in her name.

The thief was caught and convicted, but not before Lynelle Vandenberg's credit rating and health suffered, she said.

Mrs. Vandenberg is suing Sovereign Bank of Pennsylvania and MasterCard International, accusing them of negligent issuance of a credit card, infliction of emotional distress, invasion of privacy and libelous publication of credit.

Mrs. Vandenberg declined to comment on the case monday because of the pending litigation.

Her lawsuit, filed last week in Marion Superior Court, contends that her identity was stolen by Lakisha Majors, who moved into Mrs. Vandenberg's former apartment in Indianapolis and filled out a credit-card application sent to Mrs. Vandenberg in the mail.

Although she used a different first name, an incorrect Social Security number and the wrong birth date, Sovereign issued a MasterCard to Ms. Majors in December 1996, according to the lawsuit. Then Ms. Majors used the card to get instant credit from at least 10 retailers, the lawsuit contends.

An attorney for Sovereign Bank said the company would not comment. MasterCard officials did not return calls.

Ms. Majors was convicted of theft and sentenced to 180 days' probation and a year's suspended jail sentence. But that conviction did not clean up Mrs. Vandenberg's credit mess, she said.

She said she wrote to creditors, made phone calls and tried to get victim's statements attached to her credit reports. But the collection agencies or card companies would not talk with her or hung up, she said.

"I ended up being hospitalized," she said. "I was waking up at night, and I couldn't breathe."

Although federal law says consumers are liable for no more than $50 in fraudulent credit-card charges if the fraud is reported promptly, Mrs. Vandenberg said she had to pay an attorney to straighten out lingering problems.

A new law, though, could make identity theft harder.

In October, President Clinton signed into law the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1998, which gives victims of identity theft the right to file police reports and recoup damages. It also requires the Federal Trade Commission to help victims, direct them to law enforcement agencies and assist them in cleaning up their credit.

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