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John Harrison -- the face of identity theft (Page 2)

"I felt so much anxiety. It was so strong it scared me. Fifteen minutes after I woke up I felt like I was going to have a heart attack. I didn't know what to do. There was always this conflict between do I go to work or do I sit down and work on resolving this identity theft? There was always a letter I needed to write or an affidavit I needed to take care of. New problems were showing up on my credit report and I knew there'd be another letter from some debt collector."

Harrison's 20 years in the Army took him from Okinawa, Japan, to the first Gulf War. Halfway through his career he was commissioned as a lieutenant and served with the 3rd Infantry in Germany, the 4th Infantry in Colorado, and the 82nd Airborne in North Carolina. He finished as a captain in Special Operations at Fort Bragg. It was a career, and a credit history, that served Jerry Wayne Phillips very well.

"He was completely living off me," Harrison said. "He was living as me. He never got a job, he didn't have to. He had military uniforms and was doing most of his dirty work near military bases."

Harrison says Phillips opened 61 credit or bank accounts in Harrison's name. He applied for, and received, $7300 in loans from Navy Federal Credit Union. Some of that money was used to fund checking accounts. He wrote nearly $59,000 in bad checks.

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"There were 112 checks that I found off those four checking accounts. Every one of those places is essentially a separate account that I have to clear up. I have to wait for it to show up in ChexSystems or until it goes to a debt collector.

Harrison spent so much time trying to clear his name that he lost his job and was unemployed for seven months. Adding insult to injury, the military started garnishing his retirement pay. Phillips had run up a $5,700 debt at the Army-Air Force Exchange Service. Since it was a debt owed to the government, and Harrison was getting a government retirement check, they docked it.

"It's hard to understand this unless it's happened to you. Generally, the first question someone asks me is, 'Do you have to pay back the debts?' When I say 'no' they figure, OK, you just have to write letters. Well, it's not that simple."

Throughout his ordeal, Harrison continued paying his own legitimate debts but eventually, as those creditors learned of his problems, they turned on him.

"My own creditors either closed my accounts if I had no balance or lowered my credit limit to where my balance stood. MBNA, they followed it down -- every time I made a payment they lowered my credit limit. The account started with a $9,000 limit. In 2003 they took away $5,000 when my balance was $3,900. Then they took off another $1,100 when my balance got down to $2,700. Citibank closed a $10,000 account. My debt to equity ratio is probably 80 or 90 percent. I'm maxed out because they keep taking my credit away."

Debt collectors
"I didn't make a lot of headway with debt collectors. They're not in the business of resolution. They want their money or don't waste their time.

"I had a debt collector call me. I said I'm an identity theft victim and I've contacted that company. I spent 10 minutes telling him everything I've been through and he was very sympathetic. Then he said, 'Let me tell you what we can do. I have authority to lower this debt if that will help you.'

"It makes your blood boil. Someone hears you and you think they got it, but they don't. Their mission isn't to help you; it's to get money from you.

"Phillips opened an account with Cellular One and the debt collector is still reporting it to Experian (credit bureau.) The first debt collector took it off and now they've come back a second time with a different debt collector. That's what you have to go through. It's the same company and the same dollar amount so I know it's the same debt.

"There are over 30 debt collectors I've dealt with and I don't think a single one ever responded to my letters. The only way to get it resolved is in direct communication with someone who says, 'Here's what we need -- a police report. I need to have you fill out this form and get it notarized and send it back to me. Then we can take care of it.' If you don't, it's sitting in someone's computer and it will come back to you."

Harrison says Phillips opened a checking account at a Bank of America branch at Fort Sam Houston in Texas, writing bad checks worth thousands of dollars. Harrison spoke with a vice president at the bank and documented his situation. The vice president sent Harrison a letter verifying that it wasn't his account and that he was squared away with the bank. After Phillips' arrest, a judge granted the bank $6400 in restitution.

"Then I got a letter from the IRS saying that I owed $1900 in back taxes because of a $6400 debt that was forgiven in my name. That's where the emotional distress comes from. You think it's hard dealing with a debt collector; the IRS is worse."

"I was diagnosed with acute stress disorder. My therapist says I'm a person who likes having a certain amount of structure in his life, having control over things and that identity theft takes that away from you. Things happen whether you do anything or not and that tears up a person like me. While I was unemployed [the therapist] didn't make me pay. She said, 'You'll get through this and then you can pay me.'

If it weren't for that domestic disturbance that fateful December night, Jerry Wayne Phillips might never have been caught. He pleaded guilty to one count of identity theft and was sentenced on Oct. 22, 2002, to 41 months in prison.

John Harrison is still trying to clear his credit record.

For more, read:

Illustrations by Brandy Kesl

-- Posted: Aug. 18, 2004
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