John Harrison -- the face of identity theft
"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
"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.
"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
"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
"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