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Identity theft -- don't be a victim

Identity theft may be the fastest-growing crime in America, but it had to rack up some pretty impressive numbers before corporations and law enforcement started to take it seriously.

How many identity theft victims have walked into a police department and spent time filling out a report that was shunted to some dusty folder? How many companies have fallen prey to an identity thief with a fraudulent credit card and have opted against pursuing charges because it would cost more than the amount the fraudster got away with? Plus the loss is a write-off anyway.

Identity theft is a crime that turns the victim's life upside down. But too often law enforcement officials, overwhelmed with violent crime, told identity theft victims there wasn't much they could do, and too often companies wrote off the loss as a cost of doing business.

Now that identity theft is spiraling out of control, it's beginning to get official attention. Police departments are creating fraud units that take identity theft very seriously. Companies that used to simply write off losses are getting more aggressive about pursuing charges.

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Identity theft is more common than you might think: Within the past 12 months, identity theft affected over 9.3 million Americans, says a 2005 identity fraud survey report co-released by the Better Business Bureau and Javelin Strategy & Research. The study was a longitudinal update to the Federal Trade Commission's 2003 Identity Theft Survey Report, which largely revealed similar figures. One look at the following statistics will prove one thing: Identity theft is a costly, pesky problem that has yet to go away.

  • Victims: 9.3 million
  • Loss to businesses: $52.6 billion
  • Average loss to individual victims: $5,686
  • Average number of hours victims spent resolving their problems: 28

No one is saying that solving an identity theft should take precedence over a murder, but perhaps it should be taken as seriously as a nonviolent bank robbery.

Identity theft victims say their frustration and anxiety are compounded by credit bureaus, banks and credit card companies that aren't aggressively attacking the problem and the fragmented approach of the legal system in dealing with the crime.

Most cases involve at least two victims -- the individual whose identity is stolen or whose credit or bank account is compromised and the company or retailer that granted credit or accepted a check or credit card from the bad guy.

John Harrison says his identity was stolen by a man who opened dozens of accounts in his name and defrauded companies out of $260,000, in a spree that lasted only four months. Harrison claims that the corporations involved too often simply write off the loss as a cost of doing business and don't bother pressing charges.

Are companies that don't pursue charges, in effect, helping to perpetrate the crime of identity theft? There's a fair amount of finger-pointing that goes on when you ask this question. But it's clear that for many companies it's a bottom-line decision.

In 2004, when we first reported this story, we spoke with a few of the companies that were victimized by Jerry Wayne Phillips, the man who pleaded guilty to one count of identity fraud in Harrison's case and was sentenced to 41 months in prison.

Phillips had rented property in Virginia Beach, Va., and written checks to Sandbridge Realty totaling $4,042. It's not clear how many bounced, but Sandbridge general manager Cathy Ruizgonbert said, at the time, that no one from law enforcement told them he'd been caught, and the amount of money, she said, wasn't worth pursuing anyway.

"We would press charges depending on what we would have to do. We're a small company; we don't have the staff to chase after this. We won't hire a lawyer or go out of state. Sometimes," said Ruizgonbert, "you just say, 'I'm glad they're gone,' and you move forward."

Phillips used Harrison's identity to buy two vehicles, worth approximately $85,000, from Ford dealerships. Police recovered the vehicles, and Ford was able to sell them and recover partial restitution. At the time, Ford Credit spokeswoman Melinda Wilson didn't address the specific incident, but she said that even though Ford had gotten tougher on identity theft, prosecution is left up to prosecutors.

"We used to have an unwritten policy that if we recovered the vehicle, we moved on and didn't prosecute," she said. But Ford has gotten very serious about fraud, Wilson said, and if they know someone intended to defraud them, they work to prosecute.

"It's an issue of cooperation with the local prosecutors or district attorneys. Most will not pursue charges if the dollar amount isn't high enough. It's not a violent crime, and they have other more pressing crimes to deal with," said Wilson.

Citigroup and American Express, which also lost money in the Phillips case, said they, too, rely on the judgment of law enforcement when it comes to prosecution.

Robert Rawls is an assistant U.S. attorney in the eastern district of Texas where the Phillips case was prosecuted. Rawls ended up with the case when Phillips was arrested on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle he had "bought" at a local dealership, which filed a police complaint when it caught on to his scam.

Although Phillips entered a guilty plea to only that one count involving the Harley-Davidson, other crimes attributed to him were considered in determining his sentence. While some companies may not follow through with prosecution, complaints they have filed with various police jurisdictions can be included.

"Obviously he committed a number of other ID theft transactions across the country. All the losses nationwide were included at sentencing, even though there's only one charge in our district. That's not uncommon," says Rawls.

"He enters a guilty plea to that one count and a pre-sentencing report is prepared that brings in similar conduct he's done. There was an extensive investigation. Otherwise he would have gotten a much lower sentence. If it were just Harley-Davidson, it could have been just about a year.

"We prosecute almost every ID theft case that comes in and the local district attorney's office pursues a fair amount also. There is no dollar amount; it's more the quality of the evidence. For a long time we had difficulty getting records from credit card companies. It wasn't until it had an impact where losses reached a certain percentage level that they became a little more cooperative in an effort to stem ID theft."

The U.S. Justice Department, which prosecutes identity theft cases, provided two officials for this article but requested that they not be identified. They say the dollar amount of the loss could be a factor in determining whether a case will be prosecuted, but it's only one of several things considered.


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-- Updated: Oct. 12, 2005
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