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ID theft: Poor you

Jonathan Brunt (The Spokesman Review) -- The real Michael Calip stands 5-foot-10. He's Asian and has a decent driving record and good credit.

But with some of Calip's personal information, one man turned him into a 6-foot-1 white guy with a shady driving record and terrible credit, and caused Calip hours upon hours of frustration.

Now the real Calip is forced to spend his own money and time trying to reclaim what most take for granted: his identity.

"I would have rather been mugged," Calip said. "This is like being mugged every day of your life."

Calip said thieves obtained a fraudulent driver's license and opened checking accounts in his name. More than $30,000 in checks were written on the accounts, and when they started bouncing, creditors came calling. He is part of a growing number of victims of identify theft -- the fraudulent use of someone's Social Security number, bank account information or driver's license number to obtain documents, open bank accounts and take out credit cards.

Victims are often not aware of the crimes for months, because personal information is often stolen from garbage, outgoing mail or even businesses entrusted with the information.

Once bad checks or credit cards are discovered, the cases are often turned over to creditors, who stake out the victims -- after all, it's their names on the checks. Police say the crime usually isn't reported. If it is, it usually remains unsolved.

The Internet has made the crime more prevalent, police say, because it's easy to set up bank accounts and apply for credit cards online.

The crime has grown exponentially in the past decade, said Linda Foley, executive director of the identity theft resource center, which is based in California.

Statistics on identity theft in Spokane are vague, partly because it didn't become a separate crime on Washington's books until last summer. But from just June through February, Spokane County prosecuted 23 identity theft cases.

Stacey Carr, a fraud detective with the Spokane Police Department, said the crime is much more prevalent than those numbers suggest.

Last month when the Spokane County Sheriff's Office released crime statistics showing burglary and robbery down significantly in 2000 from 1999, Sgt. Dave Martin speculated that the reason for the dip was that thieves have turned to fraud and identity theft.

The reason is simple: It's much harder to get caught in identity scams than in burglary or robbery, authorities said.

"It's not nearly as risky because if the store (clerk) questions them, they can just turn around and run away," Martin said.

Nationally, hard statistics are incomplete, but the director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse estimated in congressional testimony in 2000 that there were between 500,000 and 700,000 victims of identity theft last year in the United States.

The average victim spends 175 hours and hundreds of dollars clearing his or her record, Foley said. This doesn't include banks and credit card companies, which usually assume the actual loss from the fraud.

Identity theft victims lose more than cash and time, Foley said.

"They are revictimized repeatedly," Foley said. "Every time they pick up the phone, they fear there will be another credit agency asking, 'Where is our money?'"

Spokane resident Joy Culp knows that feeling.

Someone stole one of her checkbooks last summer in the mail. Using information from the checks, they opened another account and splurged, buying about $3,000 worth of goods. Culp said she was helped out by bank employees, and the hit went to the businesses that accepted the bad checks.

"I didn't suffer a financial loss," Culp said. "I just suffered a lot emotionally."

The most common ways for people to steal an identity are to steal mail, checkbooks and wallets or find unshredded documents in trash. But IDs also are stolen by family and friends, and increasingly by employees at businesses that keep personal information.

Once the ID is taken, the crime can take numerous forms. With stolen driver's licenses, thieves might split open the lamination and put their picture in it.

Or with stolen personal information, like a Social Security number, the thief can get credit cards or new bank accounts in the name of the stolen ID.

In more serious cases, thieves take stolen information to the Department of Licensing to get a state-issued driver's license with their picture next to someone else's name and license number.

That's what happened to Calip in 1999, when a man who was temporarily living with him and his wife took off with the couple's personal information. Calip, who is now the northwest director for the Identity Theft Resource Center based in California, is unsure what information was taken.

But the thief who got a Washington license in Calip's name still is using it, leaving Calip to fight off four speeding tickets on his record in two states. The license was last used when the man got into an accident in November in Missouri, Calip said.

There is a warrant for the man's arrest, but authorities have been unable to track him down. As a nonviolent crime, Foley said police departments spend little time on the cases.

To make matters worse, Carr said she often doesn't get much help in her investigations from the businesses taking the one of the biggest financial hits -- credit card companies.

Without forged documents used to open a credit card account, it can make it impossible for her to gather enough evidence to make a case, she said.

She also frowns at the laws that she believes don't provide enough of a penalty.

One man who stole nine peoples' identities only got a year behind bars, she said. Few people convicted of the crime come close to even that amount of jail time.

"I try not to think about what my bad guys get for sentencing," Carr said. "I do my investigation, turn it over to the prosecutor, and then I close my eyes."

Carlin Jude, Spokane County deputy prosecuting attorney, said the crime is a challenge to solve because so much time elapses from when a stolen identity is used to make a purchase until police discover it stolen.

Martin, of the Sheriff's Office, wonders why so many businesses that are scammed with the bad checks don't report them to police. Businesses and banks are taking the loss, he said.

"If I have 50 forgery reports in a two-week period, my guess is there were three times that (many incidents)," Martin said.

Mick Mikalson, Rosauers security director, said the chain turns all ID theft cases over to the police, but Rosauers doesn't often see the crime.

The store got hit with a new trend last summer, Mikalson said. In the scam, people would print fake payroll checks to themselves from real businesses and cash them at local grocery stores.

Mikalson, a retired Secret Service special agent, said the store virtually ended that by requiring those who cash the checks to provide a fingerprint.

Carr doesn't doubt business assertions that they turn over ID theft cases they know about.

"A lot of times they're not aware that of the 15 bad checks they took last month, three are stolen identities," she said.

What You Can Do

Experts suggest the following tips to reduce your risk of someone stealing your identity.

* Have checks mailed to your bank, not to your home.
* Rent a post office box or buy a mailbox that locks.
* Mail letters from a locked post office mailbox; never mail anything by putting it in your mailbox for the letter carrier to take.
* Report lost checks and credit cards to your bank immediately.
* Don't put your Social Security number on your checks. Don't put your driver's license number on your checks unless asked by a clerk.
* Never give out personal identifier information, such as a credit card number, to anyone on the phone -- unless you initiated the call.
* Shred all documents with personal information.
* Shred unused credit card applications you receive in the mail.
* Check your monthly bank statement thoroughly.
* Check your credit report annually. Your credit history generally is handled by three companies, TransUnion, Experian and Equifax. Information on obtaining reports from these companies is available by calling (800) 888-4213, (888) 397-3742 and (800) 685-1111. Obtaining all of your reports may cost about $25.

More information is available at:

(c) 2001 The Spokesman Review

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