John Smith’s (not his real name) house wasn’t ransacked, his wallet never snatched or his life threatened in exchange for a handful of cash on a dimly lit city street.
Yet he was robbed of something he will spend the rest of his life trying to reclaim – his identity.
The crime left him saddled with thousands of dollars of debt, a plunging credit score and costly disputes with creditors that have lasted for more than a decade.
“I’ve been fighting this battle since 1996,” said the retired Army major. “The scary part is I don’t know when or if it will ever end.”
Smith is a victim of identity theft, one of an estimated 10 million U.S. victims each year, according to the FBI.
Identity thieves steal records, bank statements, mail, credit reports and even “dumpster dive” to obtain personal information. They use the stolen information to open credit card, bank and cell phone accounts, and may even use a stolen identity to get a job or skip out on a court date after an arrest. Victims can spend years recovering their good name and credit record.
“Thieves have gotten more sophisticated over the years,” said Brian J. Novak, legal assistance attorney at Fort Sam Houston. “Identity theft offers a way to rob the bank without physically running into the bank and risking violence.”
The topic has become a hot one in today’s globally connected society where company laptops are stolen and hacked, and consumers regularly send off personal information into cyberspace, and into the hands of “phishers,” without a second thought. Along with the personal devastation, the crime has a hefty price tag, costing American businesses and consumers a reported $50 billion a year, according to the FBI.
Although in the limelight today, 10 years ago identity theft was just barely a household term, particularly for an Army major with a flawless payment history and perfect credit.
Smith was blissfully unaware of any troubles in 1996. He and his family had just served a three-year stint at an Army post in Europe. He returned home and applied for a home loan with the confidence brought about by years of low interest rates. To his surprise, he was denied.
“They told me I had horrible credit,” he said. “I couldn’t believe it. I never missed a payment on anything.”
He immediately ordered a credit report and saw delinquent charge after delinquent charge racked up throughout the southern half of the country – New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, Kentucky, Tennessee and California.
Although Smith never physically lost his wallet or ID cards, a thief had obtained his information and was roaming throughout the country posing as Smith, using his name, past addresses and Social Security number.
Smith contacted a few of the creditors and saw the forms the identity thief filled out with handwriting completely different than his own. For a cell phone company, the thief even posed as a carpet cleaner, a job the physician assistant had never held.
In the three years Smith was in Europe, the fugitive had piled up thousands of dollars in debt and left a breadcrumb trail of overdue cell phone bills, delinquent credit cards and exorbitant, unpaid department store purchases.
Smith was shocked.