by Pia K. Hansen
She still remembers clearly when she first found out that her name wasn't just hers anymore. It was back in 1999 and "Jane" (not her real name) was applying for a loan, together with her husband. As part of the process, the lender pulled up her credit report -- but the newlyweds couldn't believe what came up on the screen.
"All these creditors showed up on my report, and none of them were mine. The first one was a TV and appliance store, the next one was Sprint, the phone company," says Jane, who used to work in a bank but now stays home with her children. "When we found out all of the listings that weren't mine, we were looking at a total of $40,000. I felt like I was drowning."
Not believing this could possibly be happening to her, Jane convinced herself it was probably an honest mistake -- that someone somewhere had missed a digit on a Social Security number and things had gotten confused.
But then the phone started ringing at her Liberty Lake home.
"It was about six months later. We also started getting letters from different stores, and then the credit agency found me, and really started digging in," says Jane. "I called them all back. It was so frustrating. They just don't believe you -- they think you are just trying to get out of paying the debt."
At first, no one was able to find out how exactly Jane's personal information had fallen into the wrong hands. Scared and frustrated, she went to the police. There she says a detective gave her some advice as to how she should proceed -- and very slowly she began piecing together what had happened.
While working in the bank, Jane says she dealt with people who had lost their checkbooks on a daily basis. If anyone knew the system from the inside, it was her. No, Jane had not had her checkbook stolen. No, she had not given out her Social Security number over the phone to people she didn't know, nor had she gotten suckered into some get-rich-quick scheme.
She had simply changed her last name -- as millions of women have -- after she got married.
"We figure that's how it happened. When I got married, I waited a little while to change my last name," says Jane, who went from a very unusual name to a more common one, a last name detectives have told her seems to be very popular with ID-thieves. "You have to submit your paperwork to three different offices, one of which is in California. At that office, someone apparently sold my new name and address." The collection agencies later showed her a photocopy of a California driver's license with her name -- but someone else's photo -- and her Social Security number on a store credit application.
Jane's story is not as out of the ordinary as you might think. But what's even more frightening is how little is being done once your doppleganger is out there having fun with your personal information. The Spokane Police Department estimates that every month about $1.5 million worth of business is being conducted in the city using fraudulent checks or stolen credit cards. And they're too overwhelmed to stop much of it.
The California woman who stole Jane's identity used a typical strategy when she systematically opened accounts in stores and then maxed them out. Many stores give instant credit as long as you fill out the application correctly -- just going from store to store at the local mall on a Saturday morning can give any ID-thief plenty of merchandise to sell for cash or trade for drugs.
"You and I pay that bill. It's what the stores used to call shrinkage. Today, they just calculate the loss into their profit margins," says Craig Brenden, who's been a detective with the Spokane Police Department's fraud unit for more than eight years. "And it doesn't always get reported when someone is trying to pay with a fraudulent check. Why? Because we don't always get back to them. We have so many cases and get so many reports that we can't always get back to the stores in a timely manner."
Brenden and his colleagues in the fraud unit carefully evaluate every single report they get -- but they pay most attention to those who feature a name they've already heard before.
"If the report features one of our frequent fliers, we spend more time on it. These cases branch out, like trees, leading us from one bad guy to the next. I mean, we know most of these people -- we know their names, their lives, their boyfriends and girlfriends, who they are living with and where," says Brenden. He adds that, generally, the successful ID-thieves are low tech and their schemes are fairly straightforward - yet still very effective in ruining their victims' lives.
"The Internet is really not where you are seeing the most fraud," says Brenden. "Yes, the bad guys use computers to gain access to information and to help make driver's licenses and such, but the fraud itself they still commit the old way. Mail theft is by far one of the biggest problems we deal with."
ID-theft is a rapidly growing national problem. The Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego estimates that somewhere between 700,000 and 1.1 million people became victims of identity theft in 2001. Some never even know their identity has been hijacked. It's not unusual that it takes years to restore your otherwise good credit.
"Washington is in the top 10 states in ID-theft cases in the nation," says Zan Deery, spokesperson for the Better Business Bureau. "It can easily take you two years to repair your credit, and it will cost you a lot of money, too. Easily as much as $2,000."
Especially over the last decade, the number of ID-theft cases has grown wildly. Because some people never find out or never report their trouble, it's hard to get an accurate estimate of how many cases develop each year. But one good indication of the size of the problem is that in 1992, Trans Union, one of the three big credit reporting companies in the U.S., got 35,000 calls about ID-theft -- last year the company received more than 1 million calls about the same crime. And it seems frighteningly easy to rob someone of his or her profile.
"All you need, to pretend to be me or someone else, is a name and a bank account number" says Brenden. "You can get that off a check that someone has mailed to Avista, for instance. And many people have their driver's license number printed on their checks, so you automatically have that, too."
Another mail thief trick is taking the envelope containing a credit card payment: Again, the crook gets not only your name and address, but also a major credit card number. A Social Security number isn't really even necessary.
"It's nice to have that, too, but there are pay sites on the Web where I can get one or just have the new fake ID made," says Brenden. "Or if you steal a car and get the registration or the car insurance, then sooner or later the crooks will have you Social Security number, too."
Computer technology has made it very easy to make fake ID cards and driver's licenses that are all but indistinguishable from the real thing.
"I have plenty here in my office," says Brenden. "I can line them up and you can look at them all you want, but I don't think you can tell the difference. The fake ones have gotten really, really good."
The Check's in the Mail -- Just last week, the SPD arrested 33-year-old Terri A. Maisano and booked her into jail, charging her with one count of ID-theft, which is a felony. Maisano had opened an Avista account in another woman's name, but the SPD has reason to believe more charges will follow this one. While searching Maisano's residence, the SPD found mail with more than 10 different names on it -- none of them Maisano's. Some of the mail was intended for people who had lived at Maisano's address earlier; other mail appeared to have been stolen out of mailboxes.
"In this case, what happened was that one person was arrested during a regular traffic stop, and the officers found credit cards and mail with different names on it -- so all the flags go up," says Brenden. "Officer Fuller called the names on the credit card holders that we found in the mail, and it turned out they had all lived at this address before. Someone was just filling out the pre-approved credit applications that came in the mail and taking advantage of that."
Many cases of ID-theft begin with mail theft. Either crooks steal mail out of personal mailboxes or they take it out of the blue collection boxes.
"People need to not -- never -- leave their mail out for the mail carrier to get it," says Brenden. "It's just too dangerous. And when they drop mail in the collection boxes, especially the drive-by ones, don't stuff it in there if the box is full. That makes it much too easy for the crooks to just pull up and grab handfuls out of the box."
The U.S. Postal Service is doing a lot to keep the mail safe and under lock and key, but making money by stealing someone's identity is a lucrative business.
"It's a low-risk but high-money product, if you know what I mean. It's not like you are sticking a gun in somebody's face, in which case you can go to jail right away," says Larry Carlier, a postal inspector in Spokane. "You can make a lot of money this way, and it's my experience that anybody using drugs goes for ID-theft in a big way."
Carlier belongs to a so-called white-collar working group consisting of law enforcement officers and Secret Service agents that meets every month, trying to keep up with mail theft, check fraud and ID-theft.
"I think we work together very well with law enforcement," says Carlier. "They stand on their heads to help us out."
He says checks left out in someone's mailbox can be soaked in acetone and then made out using someone's fake ID. Pre-approved credit card offers can be filled out with fake names and, in some cases, crooks can even get away with redirecting other people's mail to their own address.
"You can send in a change of address card in someone else's name. The Postal Service does send out a confirmation notice, but if they don't hear anything back they assume everything is fine and start using the other address," says Carlier. "All it takes is for people to not notice that their mail is missing for a couple of days and someone else can have all your bank statements and your credit card information."
Cleaning Up the Mess --The woman who's using Jane's identity lives in California, and she uses an address out of Oakland. Jane says she's been told there's nothing that can be done as far as arresting and prosecuting the woman just because of the ID-theft -- even though the Secret Service knows who she is.
"The Secret Service can't do anything; they don't deal with amounts that size," says Jane. "And that's what I don't understand. She was getting all this merchandise from the stores down there, and no one said anything -- the stores just let her do it. One of the bills was a $3,200 cell phone bill. I asked the phone company how it could get so high without them doing anything, and they said, 'Well, you must have had really good credit at one point.' The stores, the creditors, they just let it go."
And all the incentives that have been springing up in the nation's economy -- like quick credit apps and preapproved Visa cards -- are a big part of the problem. The trouble is, credit card companies make a lot of money on the interest they charge -- enough to cover the bad debt generated. That's cold comfort to the everyday victims, however, who have no way to simply pass along the hours it takes to put their lives back together.
Jane worked one collection letter and one phone call at a time, for two years, to set her record straight.
"You feel powerless, totally powerless," says Jane. "It added a huge amount of stress to my life, I didn't know where to go." She cried. She lost sleep. She was afraid of opening her mail -- especially the letters that looked like they were coming from collection agencies.
Finally, late last year, it looked like Jane had cleaned everything up. She never had to actually pay any of the creditors.
"I know I had cleared everything out that went through that account. That was a good feeling," she says.
But that good feeling barely lasted through spring. In May of this year, a new letter from a collection agency showed up in Jane's mailbox.
"I couldn't believe it," says Jane. "The first collection agency had sold the old account, the bad account, to a second collection agency. And these were the type of people who will do anything to get the money."
This time around Jane thought about getting a lawyer and countersuing the collection agency.
"I wanted to sue them just because of their rudeness," she says. "They assume that you are lying." Her husband even contemplated going to California and confronting the woman who was using his wife's identity.
Finally, Jane turned to the state Attorney General's office and got help clearing the last round of her by now almost three-year battle. She got a letter from the collection agency saying that they would take care of everything, that she is off the hook for the $6,000. But she doesn't know for sure yet.
"Who knows? Maybe they are going to sell my bad account to someone else, and I'll have to start over again," she says.
"Constantly Churning" -- As Jane's case shows, even doing everything possible to protect your name and your personal information may not be enough.
"I had no idea when I walked in to get that loan," she says. "I wish, like in my case, that the stores would stop giving instant credit or at least not give it until they have checked people thoroughly. That's one little thing that would have helped me."
Carliers says that as long as this area has the meth and car theft problems it has, he doesn't see the ID-theft problem going away.
"A lot of it is driven by meth, and the people who are involved in that are - for lack of a better word - incestuous. It's often the same people or people who travel in the same circles," says Carlier. "They steal the cars and get the information, and if one is good at making fake IDs, he'll do that part and someone else will do the rest. It's constantly churning."
Brenden says the impact on the ID-theft victims is what worries him the most.
"Your information can be used over and over again by different people for different fraud schemes. Or they get your checkbook, split it, and everyone makes an extra 100 checks off the one check they get. It just goes on and on," he says. "You are not a victim for a day or a month or a year. You are a victim for life."