Every technological breakthrough seems to create, at least for a time, opportunities for con artists. Cellular telephoning is the latest target.

Rob Spafford, Wasatch Front branch manager for US WEST Cellular, said his company has discovered an apparent cellular phone scam currently being operated locally. Some have been bilked of as much as $4,000.Spafford said at least 70 Utahns have reportedly been victims of con artists posing as agents of US WEST Cellular and Cellular One, the two companies offering cellular service locally.

Using false names and credit histories, Spafford said, the con artists first lease a cellular phone from one of the companies along with two or three months of "air time." Then they approach their victims with an "offer they can't refuse."

The con man offers to sell the phone and air time at a price below that offered by the legitimate companies. But there's a catch: The buyer is told that he or she must pay in advance for delivery at a later date. They are told to make the check out to the "salesman" personally.

Naturally, the phone is never delivered. Like a pyramid scheme, the same phone and block of air time is "sold" over and over again. The "salesman," of course, never pays the company for the phone or the air time. By the time the cellular companies learn that fake identification and credit reports have been used and move to "turn him off," the con man has made many "scores" and moved on.

"US WEST Cellular wants to alert the public to these scams," said Spafford. "The important thing to keep in mind is that if a deal is offered that looks too good to be true, it usually is."

"The (cellular) industry is struggling with fraud right now because it is growing so fast. We stop one scam and they figure out another one."

Spafford said the industry overall will be victimized by as much as $10 billion in fraud this year.

A quick way to check the validity of an offer, he explained, is to call the carrier personally. Here are some points to remember when buying or leasing a cellular phone:

- Every cellular carrier will require you to fill out paperwork on the purchase of the phone and air time. These are standard identity forms that have a customer copy attached.

- Checks should always be written to an authorized carrier or agent, not an individual.

- If you are suspicious of an offer, call the carrier directly.

Spafford said US WEST became aware of the scam through processes the company has set up to better serve customers. Victims were also identified through the fraudulent information given by the con artists.

Anyone who has information on the cellular scam or information that could lead to the prosecution of the individuals perpetrating it are asked to contact Det. Townsend, Salt Lake County Sheriff's Office, 535-5991.

If you have any doubts or questions about whether you have been a victim of cellular telephone fraud, give Spaf-ford a call at 269-1060.