ID Theft

Someone gets your social, ruins your credit, upends your life. And gets away free and clear.

A few weeks back, Sharp got a letter from Lowe's Home Improvement because the company had decided to lower his credit limit. Several delinquent accounts, the letter said, had suddenly appeared on his credit report.

"You want nice things. You want to get a house, you want to get married," Sharp says. "Unfortunately, there's people out there that take advantage of the situation and keep people from getting what they want."

"I've come to terms with it. I'm going to deal with this for the rest of my life."

FBI agent Shauna Dunlap investigated the case of a Houston-area teenager who stole credit card numbers from America Online users which enabled him to buy computers and other electronics.
Daniel Kramer
FBI agent Shauna Dunlap investigated the case of a Houston-area teenager who stole credit card numbers from America Online users which enabled him to buy computers and other electronics.

It wasn't until 2005 — two years after Sharp found out his identity had been stolen — that Harris County even had a prosecutor in the district attorney's office who only worked identity theft.

"I came up with this thought that these crimes are rampant enough that ID theft was starting to be on the tip of everyone's tongue, so maybe we should try to dedicate a resource to this," Brewer says.

Since then, investigators have gained little ground, and one of the only tangible improvements is that police are legally obligated to file a report on every identity theft complaint.

"What used to happen is that you'd call in and say someone used your social security number to do whatever, and they'd go, 'Sounds to me like you need a good lawyer,'" Brewer says. "Now police officers will take your report, but it just gets put at the bottom of the stack, and the next one that comes in gets put under yours."

The trade commission report estimates that about 65 percent of identity theft victims never even make a complaint to police, but still, the number of cases is staggering.

"Frankly, not all of these crimes are solvable," Brewer says. "But I think they're more solvable than most people think, if you have the time and resources."

Harris County doesn't have the resources.

The police department has 18 investigators working "financial crimes," which includes identity theft, but those officers also work cases dealing with forgery and mail theft and credit card abuse.

"The police always have problems keeping up with the crooks," Brewer says. "This is what they do for a living, and they're highly motivated. They have nothing to do when they get up at 11 o'clock in the morning except to think about how to steal from other people. There's always a new scheme on the horizon."

For example, in January of this year, Bryan Rutberg, a Microsoft employee from Seattle, had his Facebook account hacked and a message popped up on his page saying that he'd been robbed on the street in London and he needed cash. Fast. His daughter noticed the message, and woke up her dad from a nap to ask why he was "in urgent need of help." Before Rutberg could get out a real message — and he couldn't log in to his own Facebook account — a couple of his friends sent the thief about $1,200 through Western Union.

More disturbing to Manzo is the growing number of victims who are kids. "It's very frustrating to me when people tell me, 'I'm getting collection notices from a collection agency in Houston addressed to my four-year-old child,'" Manzo says. "They say my four-year-old child bought a car in Houston and he didn't pay for it."

A five-year-old Houston girl lost her state benefits from the Children's Health Insurance Program because, according to Manzo, the little girl had $30,000 in reported income from a job, disqualifying her from the program.

Manzo says the mother of a Houston teenager told him her son's application for a student loan was denied "because he had all these negative accounts on his credit report. My teenage son has never had any credit, but now he can't get the loans he needs to pay for college tuition."

Dead people are another target, and in the last month, Manzo arrested an employee of a funeral home who picked up bodies from a morgue and used the identities to open up lines of credit. Police arrested another man who found his victims in the Houston Chronicle's obituary section. "Very disturbing, because a dead person can't file a police report," Manzo says.

Check fraud today is almost easy. Someone with a computer, the right software and a decent printer can look at a check and make identical copies. The thief would need an identification card, like a state driver's license, and, according to Manzo, he has in his office "a stack of counterfeit driver's licenses that even [police] have trouble telling they're fake."

The fake licenses are sold at legitimate businesses in the city, and officers recently raided a store in a retail strip near Reliant Stadium.

"They advertised that they sold novelty IDs, and it's not illegal so long as they clearly stamp the ID with the word 'Novelty,'" Manzo says. "But someone would go in there and whisper, 'Don't stamp it.' It costs a little more, but they walk out with a legitimate ID. I've also heard you can go to any flea market in Houston and get one."

The police department doesn't spend much time shutting down these shops, Manzo says, because "we can shut one down today, and another one will reopen, or the same people will open up down the street the next day."

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