By Angelica Leicht
By Jeff Balke
By Sean Pendergast
By Sean Pendergast
By Jeff Balke
By Ben DuBose
By Ben DuBose
By Sean Pendergast
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.
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.
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."
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."
Police should worry more about themselves. Officers, along with judges and prosecutors, are becoming more of a target to identity thieves, not because officers are rich, but because crooks hate them.
"[Thieves] are going out and finding a judge who put a brother or sister in jail, and they're finding his information, and they get him back," says Neal. "They feel that they're a bigger target because they're out there trying to protect and serve and criminals say, 'Watch what I'm going to do to you.' We hear from detectives and agents saying, 'What can we do to better protect law enforcement? We would pay whatever it was, or take whatever steps are out there, but we need to make sure our information can't be accessed."
The problem is, members of law enforcement are no better than the general public at keeping sensitive identifying information private.
Jeri Yenne, the district attorney in Brazoria County, found out she had her identity stolen this year when she went to buy a car for her son before he left for college. The dealer told her she hadn't been paying on the two cars she bought the year before, and Yenne thought he was joking.
"The tools a criminal needs to commit this type of crime, because of the times we live in, it's just too easily accessible," Manzo says. "We need to find a way to restrict access to personal information, but I don't know if that's even something we want as consumers. It would be inconvenient."
He adds, "We're too used to having things readily available at the snap of a finger. You can open up a credit account in a store within two minutes. We'd have to restrict access to information, and I don't know if that is the price the public is ready to bear."
Kevin Wehner found out he had his identity stolen a few years back after he started getting letters about cars that he had never bought. As it turned out, a man named Shawn Labeet had used Wehner's identity for a lot more than that.
According to an article in the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, Labeet had been wanted by Miami police for five years for shooting his girlfriend, so he knew he couldn't pass a background check when he wanted to buy another gun. But using Wehner's ID in 2006, he bought six high-powered rifles and three pistols.
Labeet used one of those rifles, an AK-47, to kill a Miami police officer and shoot three others during a traffic stop in 2007. He escaped from the scene in his Pontiac Vibe, and investigators later found Wehner's driver's license in the car and named Wehner as the suspected cop killer.
Police launched a massive manhunt, and when Wehner saw a television news report that he was the focus, he immediately called police and explained it wasn't him. Officers killed Labeet a few hours later in a Miami apartment complex.
Identity thieves are often painted as white-collar computer whizzes, but more often than not, they're violent criminals.
"With very few exceptions, every person we arrest — nine out of ten — is almost always involved in drugs — use or possession or sales — and they have prior convictions for burglaries, robberies and assaults," Manzo says. "We're not dealing with specialists."
A large picture hangs in Manzo's downtown office showing rifles, grenades, bullets, banana clips and bulletproof vests that were seized during an arrest made by Manzo's unit near the University of Houston. The officers were serving a warrant for identity theft and counterfeit checks.
One of the most active criminal organizations involved in identity theft in the state is the Aryan Brotherhood of Texas, a spin-off of the Aryan Brotherhood, a white-separatist, neo-Nazi prison gang that famously rejected Charles Manson and is identified today by the Southern Poverty Law Center as "the most notorious, powerful and violent prison gang in America."
The most recent arrest came in May of this year after investigators tied a member of the gang to about 17,000 stolen credit card numbers from registrations at the Emily Morgan Hotel, a $300-a-night hotel in San Antonio. The man arrested, 24-year-old Allen Brietzke, was already a suspect in the murder of a man who police found near the Guadalupe River without his hands or head, but he was never indicted on that charge.
During the summer of 2008, police busted a meth ring in Amarillo after arresting three members of the Aryan gang for possession of fake driver's licenses, personal checks, credit cards and other random identification cards.
In one of the worst cases, a few days after Thanksgiving in 2005, Fort Worth police raided the mobile home of an Aryan gang member who had been connected to "a major identity theft ring," according to an article in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. One of the officers kicked in a bedroom door and was shot in the head and killed.
Even if the theft involves a violent criminal, Manzo says, the public just doesn't care until it happens to them. And when it does, victims expect an easy resolution.
People call Manzo all the time after they've tracked down the store where fraudulent purchases took place — $5,000 at Macy's, for example — and the victim says he knows that the store has surveillance video of the criminal. But investigators with the Houston Police Department rarely take the time — a waste of time, Manzo calls it — to go get surveillance video of identity thieves in a store, because it doesn't do any good.
"I have to explain to [victims] that I agree, a picture is worth a thousand words, but in terms of solving an identity theft crime, it's limited," Manzo says. "If I send that picture to Crime Stoppers, I'm not going to get any luck. They have tons and tons of cases involving murderers and rapists, and I'm going to ask them to air someone's picture that used Joe Smith's credit card? It's not going to sell in the media."
But in rare identity theft cases, such as when the thief is a white kid from the suburbs, the media jumps all over it.
In 2006, Jason Carpenter, a teenager from Clear Lake, was sentenced to more than 17 years in federal prison for a massive identity theft scheme that he called "fun and easy." The crime made national headlines.
"Being a young, white man, being that it was a white-collar crime, I wasn't scared of the consequences because I thought it would probably be probation," Carpenter told CNN. "I knew right from wrong, and I knew this was wrong; I just like to see how much I can get away with."
Carpenter admitted he was a criminal, but, "I'm not a major criminal. This was a hobby."
The hobby was stealing credit card numbers from AOL users, and with the help of another young man in Florida, buying loads of computers and other electronics.
Shauna Dunlap, the Houston FBI agent in charge of the investigation, says that Carpenter and accomplices eventually bought about $2 million worth of stuff using fake credit cards made with the identities of more than 1,000 people.
Carpenter and crew shipped the stolen items to a vacant house in Houston with a note on the door that said, "This is a deaf residency. Please leave the packages if no one answers." No one ever answered, and more often than not, the delivery men complied.
Carpenter and his associates bought big-ticket items with the fake credit cards, including a $6,000 four-wheeler, a $6,000 Jet Ski, an engagement ring that was worth more than $9,000, and a $1,000 Pomeranian.
By the time he was busted, Carpenter was working with nine other men and women in several different states to produce fake cards and driver's licenses and to launder money.
The FBI was tipped to Carpenter after a deputy constable with the Harris County Precinct 4 Constable's Office on regular patrol witnessed a delivery man drop off a package at a house he knew was vacant. The deputy looked at past crimes in the neighborhood and saw that Carpenter had vandalized a house there as a kid.
The deputy also saw that the FBI had a prior investigation on Carpenter, because of "a bomb threat thing," Dunlap says, so the deputy called the feds.
She continued the investigation because her job at the time was working domestic terrorism, and Carpenter, she says, was an admitted anarchist.
Investigating and prosecuting identity thieves takes so long that few complaints end in arrests.
"A lot of victims don't understand that in order to successfully identify the person who committed [the crimes], we have to put together a very good and solid paper trail," Manzo says. "They want us to solve the cases in an hour, or at least overnight, but that's not the way it is."
Identity theft investigators often need bank records that require a grand jury subpoena, and it takes about six weeks to get the records. Identity thieves also commonly open fraudulent cell phone accounts, and to the victims, finding out who opened the accounts seems easy enough.
"People say, 'Well, you can request phone records. They'll give the information to law enforcement but they won't give it to me,'" Manzo says. "They're not lying, but we have to subpoena the records. It's very time-consuming and frustrating."
Then police have to persuade a prosecutor to take the case.
"We're aware here that when someone is killed, that's an important case," Brewer says. "Our cases are important to us, but we realize there are levels of importance, and our cases aren't murder."
If a crime can be filed as an organized-crime case — three or more people working together — the district attorney is likely to take it. Also, "if the victim is in the Army serving our country in Iraq, that's really going to piss us off."
Other than that, there's no single common characteristic that ensures they'll prosecute an identity case.
Brewer subpoenaed online bookstores like Barnes & Noble for information the sites captured during the purchases. That led to an Internet service provider and another grand jury subpoena for more information, including a mailing address, which led to a physical address.
Investigators were able to verify that the woman living at the address was the suspect, and Brewer secured an arrest warrant.
"That's a lot more work than just putting a photo in a photo lineup and going to show it to somebody, but that's the way we'd normally do it," Brewer says.
Even when there is an arrest, the punishment isn't stiff enough, says Tami Neal of LifeLock.
"If you robbed a bank today, chances are you might get $500, and when you get caught, you're going to serve some years in prison," she says. "But if you go in a bank and pose as John Smith using stolen information, the amount of money you can get is endless. And then if you're caught, you get probation."
The hardest charge for Brandon Sharp to get removed was the child support.
He called the attorney general's office daily to try to persuade someone that he didn't have any children. As often as possible, he tried to speak with someone different from before, and after six months, he reached someone who helped him. "They took it off, and I haven't seen it on there since, which is a good thing," Sharp says.
Other things keep coming back. Sometimes the charges are repeats from old collection agencies, and every so often, a new medical bill will pop up from Arkansas or California or some other state.
"I guess the credit agency isn't astute enough to figure out that they just took it off. It'll get back on and you have to dispute it again," he says. "It happens all the time. You think everything's fine, and then it's not fine. Then it's a mad scramble to get it cleaned up."
In six years, Sharp says his feelings have changed from helpless to angry because he'd been done wrong, and now he's "kind of callous to it," calling it "just one of those life things you have to take care of."
"I don't turn to alcohol or anything like that," he says.
Not long after Sharp found out about his identity getting stolen, the oil and gas company where he works had "sensitive data" stolen, and Sharp was on the list as one of the compromised names. The company paid for six months with TrustedID, an identity protection service, and Sharp now pays $100 a month to stay with the company, money he'll pay for the rest of his life, he says, for some kind of peace of mind.
Identity theft hasn't ruined his life. Sharp got married, and even though he was once afraid he wouldn't get a loan for a house, he did for the place in Spring. He's accepted the hassles with credit bureaus and the fear in the back of his mind of what's around the corner.
But he wants to know something about James Banks Jr.
"Obviously hospitals have cameras. I'm sure I could spend lots of money that I don't have to hire a private investigator to get this information, because they wouldn't give it to me," Sharp says.
He hasn't, and he knows probably no one will ever be able to tell him a thing.
"You try to figure out what you did wrong, but I don't know how it happened," Sharp says. "You're pretty much out there on your own."