For most of us, $60 buys a nice dinner out, maybe with enough left over to split a dessert. For Tomas Alvarez*, it bought a new life. Or more accurately, it stole one.
In 1997, Alvarez slipped $60 to someone on a New York street corner in exchange for a no-questions-asked Social Security card. It was a great investment. The undocumented immigrant used it—and the sterling credit history associated with it—to establish and develop his own credit, get a job, and open bank and cell phone accounts. Heck, he even treated himself to a nice cable TV package.
He used it again, and again, and again. For 15 years.
The unraveling begins
In 2009, a no-nonsense kindergarten teacher and mom of two in suburban Denver decided it was high time she got a cell phone. Instead, she got a shock.
The Verizon store informed Emilee Harrison* it already had three accounts under her Social Security number (SSN). A few calls later, Harrison learned “she” had 25 Verizon accounts. There also were nine fraudulent accounts at Macy’s, and more at Sears, Best Buy, Direct TV, Frontier, Bank of America, Chase Bank, Comcast and others, totaling 44 accounts.
Harrison, it turned out, was unwittingly supplying the SSN for at least 90 aliases. Alvarez was one of them.
The nightmare scenario
For three years, Harrison filed police reports, logged phone calls, mailed and paid for registered return-receipt letters, and scoured her credit reports trying to wrestle her SSN free of fraud. She successfully disputed account after account. Still, credit rejections and calls from collection agencies kept coming. In May 2012, she opened a bill from her auto and home insurer and saw a flier for CyberScout.
“Until then, I didn’t realize I had identity theft coverage through my insurance company—and certainly not something free,” Harrison said.
She called and was assigned to CyberScout’s senior fraud investigator Vicki Volkert. After hearing Harrison’s story and doing a little digging, Volkert knew.
“This was the worst case of true-name identity theft I’d ever seen,” the veteran investigator said. “Emilee’s case is the nightmare scenario.”
Identity theft whack-a-mole
Volkert took Harrison beyond the big three credit reports to delve into a boggling web of (unconnected) consumer reports that capture such things as utilities, property addresses, and tax liens from public records. Two big ones—LexisNexis and ChexSystems—spotlighted the East Coast as a swamp of fraudulent activity tied to Harrison’s SSN.
The more they dug, the more scams surfaced. “It’s like we’d clear up one thing, and something else took its place,” Harrison said.
And although Volkert can fend off collection agencies and guide Harrison in this game of identity theft whack-a-mole, she can do only so much on Harrison’s behalf. Privacy laws intended to protect identity theft victims actually can work against them. The problem is further complicated by dismissive companies (that, Harrison says, don’t seem concerned as long as someone is paying the bill) and short-staffed law enforcement agencies that might offer to “take a look at it” and then never call back.
“I can’t stress enough how important it is for people to be persistent and follow through until you see results,” Harrison said.
A partner and confidant
“I’d been fighting this alone for years,” Harrison said. “Knowing I have someone to talk to, someone who doesn’t trivialize it, is cathartic.”
And Volkert, with 30 years of fraud investigation experience, has been able to exert pressure that Harrison never could.
“She knows how to word things in a forceful way that gets people to pay attention,” Harrison says of Volkert.
Eventually, persistence paid off. With help from a Social Security special agent and a sympathetic police detective, Alvarez’s long run as Harrison’s alter ego ended. In November, he was convicted of five counts of identity theft and sentenced to 18 months’ probation. Because of his undocumented status, he was deported to Mexico in January.
Ironically, some of his accounts remain open (with Harrison’s SSN removed) because Alvarez’s family has stayed behind.
At the hearing, Harrison read a three-page letter detailing how Alvarez’s crime kept her and her husband from living a normal financial life. “I was scared and nervous more than angry,” Harrison said. And although the $600 restitution the judge could award “was little more than a polite acknowledgment,” Harrison said she felt some sense of closure.
Volkert and Harrison now are honing in on another active name on their list.
Weary and cautious, Harrison hasn’t let her expectations soar. “I know I’ll never be fully rid of this,” she said, explaining that even getting a new SSN can’t free her, since all of her retirement benefits and the good credit she’s legitimately built are tied to the old number. She and her husband are struggling to get a better mortgage rate for their home, and neither dares shop online or use a debit card. They still don’t have accounts at stores like Best Buy and JCPenney because to get rid of fraudulent accounts with Harrison’s information, the stores also had to close her legitimate accounts. Now, they refuse to open any account with information connected to Harrison for fear they can’t verify her identity— even though she has plenty of documentation to prove who she is.
“I wish someone could wave a magic wand and make this all go away,” Harrison said.
Volkert, of course, would love to be that person. “This is so unfair, because Emilee did nothing wrong,” she said. Still, she sees progress and will keep working with Harrison as long as she wants to continue.
“We stick by our clients for as long as it takes,” Volkert said.
* Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the victim’s privacy.
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