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John Harrison -- the face of identity theft

Identity 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.

John Harrison

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 the criminal.

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 ID card.

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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 Harrison's ID.

"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

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-- Posted: Aug. 18, 2004
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