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ID theft victim recounts story

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

(Photo)
Jim Watkins of Cape Girardeau talked about what he had to go through to clear his name after he was a victim of identity theft.
(Diane L. Wilson)
Jim Watkins, 59, never bought a home in Atlanta, Ga., never had an outstanding student loan at Southeast Missouri State University, never fell behind in child support payments and never rang up a $600 bill in Texas for stereo equipment.

Yet various government agencies and creditors said he did.

When the Cape Girardeau resident became the victim of identity theft, he joined millions of others who have found themselves with a bad credit rating and creditors calling them up for expenses someone else incurred.

According to a Feb. 7 Federal Trade Commission report, identity theft tops the list of consumer complaints for the seventh year in a row. There were 246,035 reports of identity theft in 2006, the report said. The U.S. Department of Justice also charged 226 defendants with aggravated identity theft in 2005 and 432 defendants in just the first half of 2006.

Watkins was first alerted to his problem in 1996 when his bank, Bank of America, called asking why he was purchasing a computer from a Texas store when he lived in Missouri.

He heard nothing further until two months later when creditors called him about an outstanding Citgo bill for $600 and a $3,800 unpaid bill from a stereo store, both located in Texas and charged to Watkins.

A Bank of America investigator told Watkins preapproved checks sent to him from the bank's California distribution center had been intercepted and used to steal his personal information.

The investigator said that at the same time Watkins' checks had been stolen, many other checks from across the country had been stolen and processed in Texas.

"They traced them back to that central point," Watkins said.

Altogether, more than $9,200 in checks were written using his account information, Watkins said, with the bank absorbing the cost. The perpetrator was never found.

Police report

Watkins filed a report with the Cape Girardeau Police Department, which contacted police in Texas where his bogus checks and other fraudulent forms of identification turned up.

The police report gave creditors a way to verify that he was a victim of identity theft, he said.

While Watkins knows how his identity was stolen, he doesn't know if the thief continued to use it himself or sold it to others.

The following year Watkins was notified by the U.S. Department of Education that he owed $6,100 in principal and interest for a 1986 student loan at Southeast Missouri State University.

And in 1998 he learned from the Seattle Child Support Enforcement Agency that he was in arrears for child support payments of more than $38,500. Watkins' two children lived with him and his wife throughout their childhood, he said, and he had no other children.

"Imagine explaining that to your wife," he said.

Untangling these records was not easy, he said. It took more than two years of providing copies of his personal identification and the help of an attorney before his name was cleared of those expenses.

The piece de resistance occurred in 2000, when Watkins learned someone had used his identity to purchase a $38,000 home in Atlanta. Fortunately, it wasn't a bill collector who called but the government, telling him he had a tax credit on the house.

"I was lucky," he said. "I spent about $150 for an attorney and $300 to $400 in postage and phone calls."

Today Watkins pays for purchases with cash or travelers checks, never a credit or debit card. He keeps a credit card for emergencies only and cancels it and opens a new account every six months to help protect himself from further potential theft.

He's placed a fraud alert with the three credit bureaus -- Experion, Equafax and TransUnion -- which requires a call to his home phone by a creditor before a new account can be opened.

He also scrutinizes his credit report every four months.

"And I don't use my Social Security number on my checks or driver's license," he said.

Watkins made his bank agree not to send pre-approved checks to him after the first fraudulent checks surfaced.

Advice

He advises keeping a close watch on credit card bills and credit rating and to take action immediately if unaccounted expenses show up.

If creditors won't remove a fraudulent charge, he said, "Get an attorney right away."

College and high school students should be particularly wary of pre-approved credit cards that arrive in the mail, Watkins said. "Your credit rating is important, and it follows you for the rest of your life," he said.

Thomas Kelly, special agent in charge of the St. Louis Secret Service office, said the office hasn't seen much organized identity theft in the southeastern portion of Missouri it covers.

Apprehending thieves

Kelly pointed to a 2005 Internet sting by the U.S. Department of Justice, the Secret Service and local and international authorities that identified and apprehended about 28 people who stole personal information and traded or sold it. Twenty-one of those were in the United States; the rest were in Europe and Russia.

Cape Girardeau County Prosecuting Attorney Morley Swingle says prosecuting identity thieves is a frustrating experience. Many times both the victim and the suspect are in different states and not necessarily in Cape Girardeau, he said, making prosecution difficult.

"A shoplifting case is easy to prove," he said. "But with a computer and identity theft you have to show who was sitting at the computer."

If prosecutors are lucky enough to actually get a suspect into the courtroom, Swingle said, jurors don't find the financial details and the crime stimulating enough to hold their interest or to take it seriously, even if thousands of dollars have been stolen.

"This isn't like a robbery or a murder case," he said. "Their eyes glaze over."

Cpl. Jason Selzer of the Cape Girardeau Police Department said there were 50 reports of identity theft in 2005 and 48 in 2006.

"It's really hard to investigate," he said. "Most of the time they're not in our jurisdiction and a lot of times most run into a cold trail."

carel@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 127


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