Washington's problem of ID theft grows
Times consumer-affairs reporter
• In 2005, 8.9 million adults in America became identity-theft victims, down from 9.3 million in 2004.
• Most reports of identity theft stem from credit-card fraud, followed by phone or utilities fraud, bank fraud and employment fraud.
• Sixty-one percent of victims did not notify a police department; 9 percent said that although they called police, officers did not take a report; 30 percent called police and a report was taken.
• The Seattle-Tacoma-Bellevue area ranks No. 15 among large metropolitan areas nationwide for complaints about identity theft.
• Estimates range from 40 hours to 330 hours to repair the damage from identity theft, studies show.
• About 37.5 percent of victims discovered the theft within three months; 18 percent said it took four years or more.
• Households most likely to experience identity theft: earned $75,000 or more; were headed by people age 18-24; and were in urban or suburban areas.
Sources: The Federal Trade Commission; Identity Theft Resource Center; U.S. Department of Justice; Better Business Bureau/Javelin Strategy & Research.
Victims make common mistakes when they learn they've been victims of identity theft, experts say:
• Many don't take it seriously enough at first, believing one or two phone calls will clear up the problem. Victims need to follow up for a couple of years after the situation is resolved to make sure no further problems emerge.
• Too many victims stop when they reach a customer-service representative who promises to take care of a bogus account. They should speak directly to the company's fraud investigator to make sure the matter is resolved.
• Victims shouldn't assume phone calls are enough. Some simple cases of credit-card fraud may be resolved that way. But more complicated cases require a paper trail to show what's been done to resolve the theft.
• Getting a police report is key to re-establishing identity. Police agencies are inconsistent about how willing they are to provide a report, but be persistent. Creditors and the credit bureaus often require it to prove an identity was stolen before a victim can dispute phony accounts.
Detectives Dave Startup and Jas Kirk, who handle identity-theft cases for the Washington State Patrol, recommend these steps to guard against identity theft:
• Get a locking mailbox and a cross-cut shredder.
• Bank online so you can monitor your accounts frequently for suspicious activity.
• Pick up new checks at your bank rather than having them mailed to your home.
• Make copies of all the credit cards in your wallet, front and back, so you'll have critical information if your wallet is lost or stolen.
• Don't carry your Social Security card or number (sometimes printed on health-insurance cards and other documents).
• The Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization that helps victims: www.idtheftcenter.org; 858-693-7935.
• The Federal Trade Commission: www.consumer.gov/idtheft.
Sources: Federal Trade Commission; Identity Theft Resource Center; Washington State Patrol
Alice Rose of Edmonds has never owned a Mercedes, tried to buy a computer at Wal-Mart or bounced a $1,000 check at a Nevada casino.
Terry Timmons of Boulevard Park has never opened four cellphone accounts, owed $1,300 to the cable company or been evicted.
But identity thieves posing as Rose and Timmons have.
The two are among thousands of Washington residents victimized by identity theft, their lives upended by a crime that has forced them to prove, again and again, they were not responsible for what criminals did in their names.
Washington ranks No. 7 in the nation for reported identity-theft cases, up from No. 10 three years ago. Nearly 6,000 Washington residents told the Federal Trade Commission they were victimized last year. Experts agree that's a fraction of the actual cases.
"Identity theft is the biggest threat consumers face in Washington state," state Attorney General Rob McKenna said. "We're not at the beginning of the end of this problem. I doubt we're even approaching the peak."
Identity theft covers a range of crimes, from credit-card fraud resolved with a few phone calls to more complicated cases in which victims are wrongly arrested or spend years trying to purge their credit record of phony accounts.
It may begin with a lost wallet or stolen mail. Or it may be a data breach: In the past 16 months, the personal information of nearly 85 million Americans has been compromised by thieves pilfering it from companies and government agencies, according to the nonprofit Privacy Rights Clearinghouse.
McKenna believes two changes are key to shutting down identity theft — allowing consumers to "freeze" their credit and devoting more law-enforcement resources to such crimes.
A freeze renders a person's credit history inaccessible and keeps most companies from issuing credit.
The state's existing credit-freeze law is limited to victims of identity theft or consumers exposed to a data breach. That's akin to limiting deadbolt locks to homeowners only after they've been burglarized, McKenna said.
A bill to give all consumers the right to a credit freeze died in this year's Legislature, but it will be back next year, McKenna vowed.
Rose and Timmons both fell victim — twice — to the most damaging kind of identity theft, in which thieves used their Social Security numbers to assume their identities.
Only one has successfully untangled most of the knots left behind. The other has been brought to a standstill, unable to secure credit, an apartment or a job, at least in part because of a ruined credit record.
Some believe identity theft is a victimless crime. But for Rose and Timmons, identity theft is like an octopus with a smothering grip that seems impossible to shake.
Lost wallet, lost identity
The trouble began the day an ATM machine swallowed Terry Timmons' debit card.
Timmons, now 23, had come home from his freshman year of college in California to celebrate his birthday in 2001. Sometime that weekend, Timmons lost his wallet. He didn't worry much, despite knowing his Social Security card was in it, because he assumed it was just misplaced.
"I sent off for new cards and ID, and I went on with my life," Timmons said.
A year later, he returned to Seattle and stopped at his bank for cash. A bank associate told him his debit card was confiscated because someone had used his account to commit fraud, trying to withdraw $16,000 using his account number and a similar-sounding name.
The trouble was just beginning.
The bank opened a fraud investigation but said it needed a police report. The Police Department brushed him off, saying he couldn't prove his story.
Timmons admits he has some unpaid debts of his own left over from college. But his credit report also showed bogus accounts he never opened, including four cellphone accounts with unpaid bills totaling more than $1,000.
And intertwined with those debts lurked more bad news: Years earlier, two family members had stolen Timmons' identity, he discovered, and had used it to get cable and utility service and to rent apartments from which they were evicted.
Timmons spent a few days making calls, trying to figure out what to do. And then he made a mistake: He gave up.
"I was 18 or 19 years old, back and forth to college," he said. "I just didn't know. I wish I would have taken it more seriously. I just basically shut myself down."
Timmons went back to school in California and tried for a year to get a job. Some months, he said he would fill out 30 applications, one every day, to prove he was trying.
Timmons, the first in his family to go to college, quit school a year and a half short of getting a degree he had hoped would lead to a social-service job working with youth.
"[Identity theft] took me off the whole path I was on," Timmons said. "I've lost my credibility with people. Nobody wants to put anything behind you. ... I spend most of my time trying to prove I'm not that person."
Timmons said he's been forced to live out of the economic mainstream since his identity was stolen.
Landlords, cellphone companies, even employers now use credit records in making decisions about consumers. With his record, Timmons said he can't open a bank account or get a credit card, a car loan, a cellphone or an apartment in his own name. And he's been unable to find steady work.
He lives with his girlfriend and their newborn son near SeaTac, getting by on her job as a collections agent and occasional, temporary gigs he can find. "We share one Social Security number — mine," said his girlfriend, Gina Popich. "Everything is in my name."
Experts say victims like Timmons need to start from scratch to repair the damage by filing a police report and contacting credit bureaus and creditors to separate legitimate accounts from bogus ones.
In extreme cases, victims can get new Social Security numbers — something Timmons has looked into — but that is a last resort that comes with headaches of its own.
Timmons lives with many unanswered questions about what happened to him, including this:
Why didn't his bank contact him when it detected fraudulent activity?
"It was just easy for the bank to blame me," he said. "I feel like there's nobody out there protecting you."
"Never really goes away"
Bad news was taped to Alice Rose's door one rainy February night in 2005, when she came home from work to learn that her 2001 Mercedes convertible was being repossessed.
Worse: Rose drove a 1992 Honda Civic and had never owned a Mercedes.
Within hours, she was looking at her credit reports online and finding "such scary things you couldn't believe it."
Rose discovered nearly $115,000 worth of loans and accounts had been opened in her name, including a total of four car loans in California. Her previously excellent credit score had plummeted 130 points.
Still, Rose wasn't really surprised.
"It was always in the back of my mind that it could happen again because my data was already out there," she said.
In 2002, Rose had just moved from Los Angeles to Portland when she learned police in Los Angeles were trying to contact her. An alert clerk at a local Wal-Mart had stopped a couple from buying a computer with a fake check and identification using Rose's personal information.
A police investigation revealed that Rose's Social Security number, birth date and mother's maiden name had been stolen from the document she filled out when she opened her bank account — possibly by a bank employee.
Rose worked to clean up that mess, which included several bounced checks and the attempted computer theft. The suspects went to jail. Rose held her breath.
Two years later, Rose, an accountant at the University of Washington, bought a condo in Edmonds. Soon after, identity thieves started buying cars in her name. It took five months for Rose to learn about it from the repo notice. Rose has kept a scrupulously detailed record of her case, with all the related documents stored in a plastic tub: copies of numerous notarized letters to creditors and credit bureaus; police reports; records of phone calls, including the 13 phone numbers she dialed one day before reaching someone at Bank of America to dispute an account.
She estimates she has spent 100 to 200 hours since 2002 trying to repair the damage. "With ID theft, you have to keep proving you are innocent," said Rose, 59. "If your house is robbed, you call the police, you fill out the insurance forms — you don't have to constantly be on the defensive to show you didn't rob it yourself."
Despite her efforts, Rose feels she's always looking over her shoulder.
"Something else could just fall out of the sky tomorrow," she said. "They say it never really goes away."
Rose's most recent credit check shows her credit score has climbed back almost to where it was before the unauthorized car loans appeared.
Yet nearly four years after her identity first was stolen, Rose's credit record with one credit bureau, Equifax, still lists a fraudulent address and a $40,000 loan for the Mercedes convertible she never owned.
Jolayne Houtz: firstname.lastname@example.org; 206-464-3122
Copyright © 2006 The Seattle Times Company