John Harrison -- the face of identity theft
theft is one of the fastest-growing and least-understood crimes
in America. Those who have never been victimized tend to brush
it off. No one gets injured, they say, and the victim isn't
responsible for the debts anyway.
If it happens, they figure, it'll
be a hassle, but an explanation of the situation will solve
the problem. The bad debt will come off the credit report;
the emptied checking account will be reimbursed by the bank.
But it's not that simple. Through
no fault of his own, John Harrison's identity was stolen.
As a result, his credit record
was ruined and his productive life thrown into an endless
maze of debt collectors, pension pay garnishments, letters
and affidavits, phone calls from lawyers, dunning notes from
the IRS, frustration and despair.
The problem is compounded by corporations
that don't press charges; financial institutions and credit
bureaus that spew out credit without adequately checking backgrounds;
and police departments and judicial systems, bogged down by
violent crime and post-Sept. 11 concerns, that have inadequate
resources to stop the crime, help the victim or prosecute
On Dec. 11, 2001, in North Carolina,
police were called for a domestic dispute. The suspect fled,
screaming off into the night on a Harley Davidson motorcycle.
A sheriff's deputy caught up with him and asked for his driver's
license. He didn't have one, so he handed over a military
Hundreds of miles away in Connecticut,
retired Army Captain John Harrison was awakened at 2 a.m.
on Dec. 12 by a phone call from the sheriff's department in
Burke County, N.C. It was a call he'd been hoping for.
Harrison had retired from the Army
in 1999. Two years later, in July of 2001, Jerry Wayne Phillips,
then 21, was issued an active duty military ID card in Harrison's
name with Harrison's Social Security number at Fort Bragg
in North Carolina. Harrison has no idea how.
Phillips wasted no time. By the
time he was arrested that December night, he had run up $260,000
in debts in Harrison's name. According to Harrison, Phillips
opened four checking and two savings accounts. He also started
credit accounts with dozens of companies to fund his spending
splurge, which included two motorcycles, the Harley and a
Kawasaki; two trucks, a time-share in Hilton Head and a beach-home
rental in Virginia Beach.
Burke County investigators say
at the time of his arrest they found an estimated $25,000
worth of stolen property "believed to have been obtained
using the false identification."
John Harrison's first clue that
something was wrong had come in October when a credit union
called him about an account. He said he didn't have an account
with them and tossed it off as a problem on their end.
But a call the next month from
the police department in Beaumont, Texas, couldn't be blown
off. The detective was investigating the purchase of a Harley
Davidson motorcycle with a check drawn on a Bank of America
account. The check was signed Jhon Harrison.
"The detective knew I was
an identity theft victim," Harrison said. "He had
seen my credit report. He asked if I knew about identity theft.
"He could see all of these
accounts had been opened in just a four-month period and that
I had a great credit history before that. Accounts opened
in the last 20 years were in good standing and being paid.
Then there's this four-month window.
"He asked me to send him an
affidavit verifying who I was, that I had retired from the
military and lived in Connecticut. He told me to contact the
credit bureaus and to look up identity theft on the Federal
Trade Commission Web site."
Harrison, who had never even seen
his credit report, immediately got busy doing his homework
and a month later when Phillips was caught, he was confident
it would all be resolved quickly.
"In the beginning, I felt
like I'd nip this in the bud. I had the police report, I'd
been retired for two years and all these accounts were opened
as an active duty military man. I even had articles showing
Jerry Phillips in handcuffs and they said he had stolen John
"I thought I just needed to
be proactive, show the creditors and I'd be straightened out
in a few months. That's not the way it went."
Six months later, Harrison's life
was upside down. There was so much stress that each morning
he was greeted by a sickening tightness in his chest.
Illustrations by Brandy Kesl