A Case of Stolen Identity

SHELLY ANDERSON CAME home one day last December to find creditors at her heels. The odd thing was, they weren't her creditors. The first clue that something was amiss came via an answering machine message from Wickes Furniture. She was behind in her payments, said the message; would she please call the credit office? Since Anderson (not her real name) didn't have a Wickes account, she ignored the initial call, but in the six months since that time she's spent countless hours and made hundreds of phone calls trying to clear her credit and her name. The experience has left her embittered about the indifference of cops, courts, and retailers in matters of consumer credit fraud.

When she finally spoke to someone in Wickes's credit department, Anderson discovered that the account didn't bear her name or address--but it did have her Social Security number attached to it, which was enough to make it part of her permanent credit history. Wickes agreed to close the account, and the rep suggested that Anderson run her credit report to check for any additional fraudulent accounts.

She did, requesting reports from three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Transunion, and TRW. "When I got the reports," says Anderson, "I was devastated. Nine accounts had been opened under my Social Security number. In the space of a year, thousands of dollars in merchandise were charged to them." It turned out that a Bloomington woman had piggybacked Anderson's credit to open accounts not only at Wickes but also at Slumberland, Best Buy, Circuit City, Kohls, Filene's Basement, Levitz, Montgomery Wards, and Beneficial Loan and Thrift. The woman then made just enough payments to keep the accounts from being closed while she charged them up: some $12,000 in all by the time Anderson found out what was happening. "I'd been shopping garage sales," says Anderson, "and this woman was buying new furniture and TVs with my credit."

Anderson contacted the police department in Minneapolis, where she lives. But when she called their fraud and forgery department to tell her story and give them the woman's Bloomington billing address, the police told her they couldn't do anything: "They told me the victims were the merchants and not me. The attitude was that only the merchants losses were tangible, and as mine were only time, energy, and emotion, those things were negligible."

Finding the guilty party was no problem; her address was attached to all the accounts. Anderson presumed that when she phoned the merchants themselves, they would be eager to prosecute. Not so. "They were fine with closing the accounts," she recalls, "but most of them said they would just write off the loss and not pursue prosecution." Angry and surprised, Anderson decided to mount a personal crusade of sorts, confronting some of the stores' credit department employees face-to-face and demanding an explanation as to why it was so easy and so apparently safe to open an account with falsified information. Most shrugged. Meanwhile Anderson still faced a considerable headache clearing up her credit reports. And she was getting madder all the time. "It was clear to me that no one was going to watch out for my best interest," she says, "so I took control. I became the point person. I didn't trust that anything was going to get done unless I forced the issue."

Her next move was to contact the Bloomington Police Department. A lieutenant in the property crimes unit was assigned to her case, but Anderson continued doing her own investigation. Paranoia seemed the only reasonable response. When she learned that the woman who stole her credit identity listed First Bank as her employer, Anderson went to the bank to see whether any accounts had been opened under her Social Security number. There hadn't been, apparently, but it did little to reassure Anderson. She also visited the Department of Motor Vehicles. "I was afraid she had taken over other parts of my identity," says Anderson. "And even though my driver's license was intact, I didn't feel safe. I still don't. I didn't have time to go to all the banks; there still might be something out there."

While Anderson was sleuthing, Bloomington Police Lieutenant Phil DeGia was busy setting up his criminal case. It broke when DeGia obtained a photo of the "other Shelly" from the FBI, which had questioned her as a potential accessory to a bank robbery. He carted the photo around to merchants, and several clerks IDed her. Using a list of merchandise compiled by the stores, the police eventually confiscated most of the contents of the woman's apartment.

While it's still unclear how the woman got her Social Security number, Anderson has a theory. She had never met the woman, but she did learn that both of them had worked at the same temp agency at the same time. She thinks her Social Security number was simply copied off her time card.

The woman has been charged with a felony, but DeGia admits it's a hollow charge. "Unfortunately," he says, "in these kinds of cases, the statute calls for 'presumptive probation,' and people know there are no serious consequences. I have no doubt that she will do it again." He echoes Anderson's disgust at the lackadaisical attitude of the businesses involved: "It's shocking to talk to them and see how callous they are. They pass it off as operating costs and raise their prices. We all end up paying for this."

Although justice was at least nominally served, Anderson's ordeal is far from over. Following the arrest, she had to recontact each of the merchants, send them copies of the arrest reports, and prompt them to notify the credit bureaus. While the stores have been quick to protect their interests by closing the fraudulent accounts, it appears their concern does not extend to Anderson. According to her May credit report, the reasons the accounts were closed are listed as "dispute resolution pending, charged off account, and collection account." In other words, when a prospective creditor looks at Anderson's history, the record will not be pretty. And according to Susan Race-Sylstra, a veteran credit card fraud investigator, regardless of the wording eventually attached to the file, Anderson's record will never be completely purged of the wrongdoing. "It'll keep coming back to haunt her," says Race-Sylstra. "Every once in a while, it's going to pop up, and she'll have to defend herself and her credit all over again."

For her part, "I'd like to have my life back," says Anderson, who has spent an average of 20 hours a week on the matter since February. "This isn't the same as a burglary. The sense of victimization is different. When you get robbed, you can buy new clothes, change your locks, and be done with it. But with this, you don't know what else someone may have on you, or who else may have gotten this information. A robbery is like a punch in your stomach. This is a slow torture."

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