Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, sometimes senses high-tech catastrophe looming over the horizon before it registers on the national radar.

For example, he constantly talked, prodded, pushed and warned about the "year 2000" computer problem in a series of hearings he called before most people knew what it was.That problem - where computers will think the year 2000 is 1900 because older programs store only the last two digits of a year - became a true national worry due much to his constant warnings that computers may crash en masse or otherwise foul up everything from air traffic control to bank accounts.

Bennett similarly is now beginning to constantly warn about what he fears may be another high tech calamity: identity theft.

He held a second hearing on it this month, and is talking more about it all the time, too. And he is warning: "Identity theft is neither difficult nor risky" - unless government and businesses raise their guard more soon.

What is it? It is stealing someone's identity by such things as obtaining their Social Security or credit card numbers to open other accounts to embezzle money. Thieves can do that by computer break-ins to data banks, electronically watching Internet transactions and even stealing credit card data from mail boxes.

One victim, who testified at an earlier hearing, was Utahn Diana Christiansen. Someone obtained her Social Security number, and used it to make a fake driver's license (which is not hard with a high-quality color printer and a home computer).

Soon bill collectors began hounding Christiansen for purchases she never made, and payments on accounts she never opened.

"It totaled $27,118 in eight accounts. Two retail stores, a cable company, a credit company, a credit card issued by the bank, a financing company, two telephone company accounts, and a department of water and power bill. There were also five false addresses used, and my name was used in two different forms," she told a banking subcommittee chaired by Bennett.

He said one man even reported to his staff that not only had someone stolen his identity to commit similar fraud, but the thief even had been arrested and sentenced to prison under his name for unrelated crimes.

Bennett's hearings are also showing many problems with the law that is making it more difficult to catch identity thieves.

For example, Wayne C. Matus of New York City was able to track down who had stolen his identity - but said he was unable to persuade the Secret Service, FBI or local police to pursue the thief because of questions over jurisdiction.

Darylle Goodfield of Los Angeles said such law agencies wouldn't even file a report on theft of her identity because they didn't consider her a victim - and said banks that wrote off losses from the fraud were victims. But she said California would not give her a new driver's license number without such a police report.

Also, the Secret Service testified that identity theft itself is not a crime until it is used to commit a fraud. And prosecutors often want more than one fraud to be committed before they will pursue charges - so efforts that could block fraud before it happens are blocked.

Meanwhile, Bennett's staff has found books, videos and computer programs easily available on how to change identities that are taking advantage of legal loopholes and lax enforcement.

He noted that even one of his staffers who had been researching the problem had his identity stolen - and $3,000 charged to a credit card account.

Hitting even closer to home, Bennett said one of his daughters also suffered a similar theft.

And those are people who know about the problem and take care about whom they give their credit card numbers and other identification. If it happened to them, it could happen to anyone.

And Bennett warns it will only become a bigger problem. He hopes to build a critical mass of concern to make changes that could slow it down. Until then, beware.