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Victims say identity thieves also stole peace of mind

Victims tell their stories 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.

How it happened
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.

The damage
In each case, the thieves made a mess of their victims' lives.

Porter's thief declared bankruptcy in Porter's name.

"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 toast."

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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.

The 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," he says.

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 in voice.

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---."

How 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 says.

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 way."

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."

Fears for tomorrow
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 horrible."

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 over again."

-- Posted: May 17, 1999

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See Also
Main story: Protect yourself from identity thievery
AND: A clean-your-credit worksheet

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