Victims say identity
thieves also stole peace of mind
Doug Mason of Melbourne, Fla., fired off 100
letters. Kansan David Porter threw a high-profile fit. Leroy Thompson
of El Centro, Calif., worked for six months to restore his name.
His mother, Celia, gave up.
They're just a few of the 400,000 victims each
year of identity fraud. Here are their stories -- what they've endured,
how they fought back and how the crime still affects their lives.
Identity fraud blindsides you. It hits without warning and you
may never know why or how it happened.
"I have no idea how I became a victim," says
Porter, the victim of an impostor in Los Angeles. Why L.A.? Porter's
nonplussed. "Last time I was in Los Angeles, it was at the '84 Olympics.
I probably never will find out how it happened."
The Thompsons aren't certain how their identities
were stolen, but they suspect it happened during a burglary at the
auto dealership where Celia co-signed a loan with Leroy in 1992.
The dealer had them come in and redo their papers, telling them
they had been lost. Later they learned of the burglary.
Only Mason is certain: A thief stole his briefcase
during a business trip to Boston in January 1999. A Massachusetts
state trooper called Mason in March to tell him that a career criminal
had tried to open a cellular phone account in his name.
In each case, the thieves made a mess of their victims'
Porter's thief declared bankruptcy in Porter's
"I couldn't rent a car. I couldn't lease a car.
I couldn't get a home loan. I couldn't get anything," Porter says.
"Thank God, he didn't have my mother's maiden name or I'd have been
Mason's impostor opened several false accounts
from banks, credit unions and department stores and started spending.
"I expect in the next few months I'll be getting calls and finding
out additional things," Mason says.
Celia's impostor got to work immediately. She
purchased three cars and charged up 17 credit cards within weeks.
Celia found out about the theft when investigators came looking
for her at the Kmart store where she has worked for 23 years. She
had to show them her birth certificate to prove who she was.
"The investigators were looking for her for
the cars," she says.
The thief was more patient with Leroy, 36, lurking
in wait for a couple years while Leroy built up a good credit rating.
The phony Leroy then racked up more than $40,000 in debts.
fight for their good names
Mason went into action quickly after the state trooper gave him
the heads-up, writing about 100 letters in an effort to clear his
name and his credit. "So far I've been able to head everything off,"
Porter wasn't as lucky. After three years of
frustration and tirelessly working to repair his tarnished credit
record, he went to the Kansas state attorney general's office and
refused to leave until the matter was resolved. Two days later,
the credit bureaus removed the bankruptcy from his credit report.
He estimates he spent more than $5,000 in legal
fees, faxes and countless long-distance phone calls. A graduate
student at the time, Porter says he "damn near flunked out one semester"
as he fought to clear his name.
"You don't how it feels to sit there and be
completely hung out to dry," Porter says, the anger still sharp
Leroy Thompson worked six months and was able
to clear his name, but his mother, weary of battling bureaucracy,
simply gave up hope of obtaining credit.
"It never got cleared up because no one would
listen to me," says Thompson, a native of Mexico who speaks English
as a second language.
"Three or four years ago, I gave up. All I was
getting was headaches."
Battling a sometimes-creaky financial bureaucracy
left all of them weary and frustrated.
"What greater theft is there than stealing one's
identity?" Mason says.
Porter felt victimized by the theft and by the
law enforcement and credit establishments.
" I felt like some kind of rape victim and no
one gave a s---."
they protect themselves now
All of the victims have become sharply aware of guarding their identities.
They've changed their habits and urge others to do the same.
"My checks only have my name on them," Celia
Thompson says. If anyone wants more information, "They can ask me."
When they do ask, she gives them the quiet treatment.
"If they ask for a driver's license number or Social Security number,
whisper. Make sure the person behind you is not listening," she
One of Porter's solutions has sharp teeth. "Everything
I get in the mail with a number on it I shred," he says. "My phone's
unlisted. My car's not even in my name."
Celia Thompson doctors her garbage, too. "When
you get anything in the mail make sure you cut it up," she says.
"I get a pair of scissors and cut this way and that way and every
Porter says, "If you're a victim, hang in there.
You can get it cleared up but it's going to be a long, long road."
To the victims, the most frightening aspect of identity theft is
that if they do all the right things -- writing the creditors, filing
the paperwork, making the follow-up phone calls -- and finally clear
their names, that sets them up to be victims again. After all, the
thieves still have their identities and a newly cleansed credit
record could be all the invitation a crook needs to trash the victim's
good name again.
Adds Leroy Thompson, "I worry that some day
he's going to turn around and start doing it again."
Mason fears it could get even worse. "This guy's
a career criminal," Mason says. "There's always the possibility
of criminal activity being added to your record -- that would be
Porter shares the restless feeling.
"I don't feel safe at all. I'm totally paranoid.
I can be victimized any day, any time. This could all happen all
-- Posted: May 17, 1999