By Chris Lane
By Jeff Balke
By Aaron Reiss
By Angelica Leicht
By Dianna Wray
By Aaron Reiss
By Camilo Smith
By Craig Malisow
It wasn't long after Brandon Sharp turned 30 that he proposed to his girlfriend. She said yes, and the plans for marriage made him "realize it was time to change my priorities," namely, time to buy a house.
They wanted one in Spring, and when they found the place that was right, they went to a mortgage broker's office one day. That's when Sharp found out there was no way he'd get approved for a loan. There were too many bad marks against his credit, the broker told him.
"I've always been real proud about paying my bills," says Sharp, who grew up in Katy. His credit report showed otherwise.
Six collection agencies were after him for about $22,000 in delinquent medical bills from hospitals and clinics in Bowling Green, Kentucky. That included a $19,000 Life Flight transport.
Sharp had never been to Kentucky or in an emergency room.
Worse, the state of Texas, through the attorney general's office, claimed he owed $23,625 in unpaid child support. "I don't have any children," Sharp says.
Six years later, he still doesn't know how or who took his social security number and turned him into James Banks Jr., sending bill collectors after him for more than $100,000.
Most victims end up wondering the same thing, because police and prosecutors can't seem to catch up to the growing number of identity theft crimes each year. The Houston Police Department alone receives about 1,400 identity theft complaints each month, and usually, those result in about 25 arrests. Not 25 percent. Twenty-five arrests.
Meanwhile, the victims are often forgotten, left to deal with cleaning up the mess on their own.
"I'm sure some people are going to make some phone calls to friends and family who have been victims, and short of getting on the Internet and doing a search, your hands are really tied," says Tami Neal, the public affairs director for LifeLock, an identity protection company.
According to a recent report from the Federal Trade Commission, it takes a person about 200 to 300 hours and costs an average of about $2,800 to clean up his credit after the first notice of identity theft. A large part of that time and money more than likely goes to dealing with Equifax, Experian and TransUnion: The Credit Bureaus.
The bureaus are required by law to investigate any claim of fraud on a credit report, and if the collection agency alleging the debt doesn't respond within 30 days with proof, the charge is supposed to disappear. It rarely works out that way.
"As far as the creditor is concerned, it is you, with your social security number on it," says Tanisha Warner, communications manager for Money Management International, a financial counseling firm.
In fact, Warner says that if the charge is a result of identity theft, it's almost pointless to hassle with the credit bureaus. Instead, you might as well go directly to the collection agency. That takes time too, because creditors usually want a police report, an affidavit signed by a notary, and some agencies even require the person to file a report — and get a copy of it — with the Federal Trade Commission.
Even when the fraudulent charges are cleared from a credit report, it really doesn't settle things.
"We get the bad guy and he's in jail, but he memorized your social security number and I can't make him forget it, and I can't tell you how many people he gave it to," says John Brewer, who runs the identity theft bureau at the Harris County District Attorney's office. "So can I tell you it's over? No, I can't tell you it's over."
And the number of ways that thieves steal identities is growing, according to Lieutenant Robert Manzo, the top investigator for the Houston Police Department's Financial Crimes Unit. He says that during his three years working identity theft crimes, he's seen dead people and children targeted, with thieves ranging from funeral home employees to bank tellers to receptionists.
"These groups are actually using very simple methods," Manzo says. "It's not these complex schemes."
In fact, only about 1 percent of identities are stolen using electronic methods, says Manzo, and most thieves don't have to work hard at all.
A recent example is the arrest of 29-year-old Nakeshia Brown in April of this year. She worked as a nurse at Memorial Hermann Hospital, and she allegedly took patients' personal information that was easily accessible to her, then applied for credit cards, according to a news release from the United States Department of Justice. Brown reportedly tried to open at least one bank account using the social security number of a person who had died at the hospital.
After Brandon Sharp was turned down for the home loan, he filed a police report and hassled with the credit bureaus for a year to clear his credit of the fraudulent charges. He even started paying $100 a month for a company to monitor his credit report and keep his social security number from floating around cyberspace.
The effort hasn't done much. James Banks Jr. keeps racking up debt in Sharp's name, threatening to ruin his credit along the way. Every couple of months, new charges pop up — almost always medical bills — and the result is painful.