Retiree Wages 10-Year Battle to Clear Name After Identity Theft
By Elaine Wilson
Special to American Forces Press Service
FORT SAM HOUSTON, July 25, 2006 John Smith's* house wasn't ransacked, his wallet was never snatched, nor was his life threatened in exchange for a handful of cash on a dimly lit city street.
Identity theft can happen to anyone. Experts recommend checking your credit reports periodically. Photo illustration by Lori Newman
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
Yet he was robbed of something he will spend the rest of his life trying to reclaim -- his identity.
The crime left him saddled with thousands of dollars of debt, a plunging credit score and costly disputes with creditors that have lasted for more than a decade.
"I've been fighting this battle since 1996," the retired Army major said. "The scary part is I don't know when or if it will ever end."
Smith is a victim of identity theft, one of an estimated 10 million U.S. victims each year, according to the FBI.
Identity thieves steal records, bank statements, mail, credit reports and even "dumpster dive" to obtain personal information. They use the stolen information to open credit card, bank and cell phone accounts, and may even use a stolen identity to get a job or skip out on a court date after an arrest. Victims can spend years recovering their good name and credit record, both infinitely more valuable than any number of stolen ID or credit cards.
"Thieves have gotten more sophisticated over the years," said Brian J. Novak, legal assistance attorney here. "Identity theft offers a way to rob the bank without physically running into the bank and risking violence."
The topic has become a hot one in today's globally connected society where company laptops are stolen and hacked and consumers regularly send off personal information into cyberspace, and into the hands of "phishers," without a second thought. Along with the personal devastation, the crime has a hefty price tag, costing American businesses and consumers a reported $50 billion a year, according to the FBI.
Although in the limelight today, 10 years ago identity theft was barely a household term, particularly for an Army major with a flawless payment history and perfect credit.
Smith was blissfully unaware of any troubles in 1996. He and his family had just served a three-year stint at an Army post in Europe. He returned home and applied for a home loan with the confidence brought about by years of low interest rates. To his surprise, he was denied.
"They told me I had horrible credit," he said. "I couldn't believe it. I never missed a payment on anything."
He immediately ordered a credit report and saw delinquent charge after delinquent charge racked up throughout the southern half of the country -- New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee and California.
Although Smith never physically lost his wallet or ID cards, a thief had obtained his information and was roaming throughout the country posing as Smith, using his name, past addresses and Social Security number. Smith contacted a few of the creditors and saw the forms the identity thief filled out with handwriting completely different from his own. For a cell phone company, the thief even posed as a carpet cleaner, a job the physician assistant had never held.
In the three years Smith was in Europe, the fugitive had piled up thousands of dollars in debt and left a breadcrumb trail of overdue cell phone bills, delinquent credit cards and exorbitant, unpaid department store purchases.
Smith was shocked.
"He had too much information, more than he could have gotten off of a check," he said. "It had to be someone who found information in my wallet while I was at the gym or someone from finance or personnel."
Smith immediately ordered a fraud alert so he would be notified whenever someone used his name or Social Security number to apply for credit and told credit agencies about his situation. He also painstakingly copied records and reports proving he was nowhere near where the debts were incurred.
But for dozens of unpaid creditors, the question was never which was the real John Smith, but which one was going to pay.
Smith's answer every time has been, "not me."
"I have a two-drawer file cabinet just devoted to identity theft," he said. "For every discrepancy on my report, I have to make copies and send them through certified mail. It's exceedingly time consuming, but I haven't had to pay for a debt yet."
However, Smith has paid a different price.
"I had bad credit for a while, very poor credit," he said. "Each time I apply for credit I have to go prove that I'm not a bad risk. My credit has improved a lot but my interest rates are still higher than they should be.
"Even if you win a case, you still lose," Smith said. "You take a loss, whether it's paperwork or credit scores."
Smith is still haunted 10 years later by crimes he didn't commit with delinquent notices and threats of lawsuits. He can't change the past, but Smith hopes that by sharing his story he can help others protect their future.
"Protect your identity," he advises. "Don't leave your personal information unlocked in the gym or in your car. Limit how much information you give out. And check your credit report once or twice a year.
"I made the mistake of not checking my credit annually, especially while I was overseas," he added. "If I had, I may have been able to catch the problem sooner and nip it in the bud before it got as far as it did."
And for those battling the crime, "Get to a lawyer," he said. "You can get through it, but you'll need the help."
*The name was changed to protect the subject's identity.
(Elaine Wilson is assigned to the Fort Sam Houston, Texas, Public Information Office.)