Restoring their credit, reclaiming their lives

THE BALTIMORE SUN

Nicole Robinson has been fighting for more than four years to rescue her life.

Robinson, 35, lives in Prince George's County and works as a corporate librarian for an Alexandria-based engineering company. In March 2000, she discovered that a woman in San Antonio had established a $3,200 line of credit at a jewelry store using her Social Security number.

She reported the incident to police, who advised her to request a copy of her credit report. It revealed a sea of bad debt accumulated in her name, including $8,000 owed to Dell computers and another $8,000 owed to a consumer electronics store.

At first, it seemed a relatively simple task to clean up her credit, Robinson said. But the thief has haunted her, returning again and again to use her identity. "I had no idea what hell was awaiting me," she noted ruefully last week.

Robinson is far from alone. Between 9 million and 10 million Americans had their identities stolen last year, including several hundred thousand in Maryland, according to Beth Givens, director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse in San Diego.

The scope of the danger became apparent with a report from ChoicePoint, a Georgia-based data marketing giant, that said thieves had gained access to Social Security numbers and other confidential credit data of more than 145,000 Americans, including at least 2,750 residents of Maryland.

Industry experts say that bad news is just the tip of the iceberg. They note that the credit data industry has been evolving from a buttoned-down service provided to banks, mortgage lenders and insurance companies to a free-wheeling market providing much more information about more Americans to many more users.

ChoicePoint, the poster child of this burgeoning industry with more than 19 billion public and private records on file, said last week that it had been victimized by con artists who took advantage of weaknesses in the company's defenses by using false company names to purchase people's identities.

Givens and other critics note that it is ordinary people - not the credit sellers who made the mistake - who are left to struggle with challenging task of restoring their fractured lives.

It became vividly apparent last week that the legal protections and aid offered to identity theft victims are extraordinarily fragmented and limited.

At first, ChoicePoint sent letters to just over 34,000 potential victims in California, the only state with a law on the books requiring such notifications. Only after the combined pressure of attorneys general in 40 other states, including Maryland, did ChoicePoint widen the notifications.

J. Joseph Curran Jr., Maryland's attorney general, said in an interview last week that he intends to pursue legal protections for Maryland citizens at least as strong as the California law and hopes to explore ways to get more meaningful help to victims of identity theft here.

Curran said he had discussed the issue with representatives of the state's office of consumer protection and hoped to have meetings on possible Maryland legislation this summer.

"We had supported a bill in the Maryland legislature last year, but it died in committee," Curran said.

About a half-dozen pieces of legislation aimed at studying the identity theft issue or providing varying kinds of help to victims have been introduced in the legislature this year, but Curran noted that it would probably be useful to assess what other states and the federal government might do.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, has introduced legislation in the Senate that would require notification of victims and provide other assistance. But critics noted it would override possibly stronger state protections.

Curran and the other attorneys general participated in a conference call with ChoicePoint's corporate counsel on Friday with the goal of ensuring as much help as possible for victims of the newly reported scams.

An aide said Curran's office will continue to monitor ChoicePoint "to ensure that the assistance that it has promised to provide - free credit reports, free subscriptions to credit monitoring services, and a dedicated toll-free number to provide support for these consumers - will be provided in a timely and user-friendly fashion."

There is an array of private and public sources of assistance to victims, including Web sites operated by the Federal Trade Commission, the FBI, the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the Identity Theft Resource Center. But their help is limited. And the burden remains on the victims, who are often the only ones to suffer meaningful punishment.

Consumer advocates say laws requiring tough penalties for failing to adequately control personal information are urgently needed.

While attention has focused on the three major national reporting agencies and large independent data sources like ChoicePoint, critics say security is lacking across America.

Any large employer probably keeps the Social Security numbers of thousands of applicants on file, they note. That vital number has been imprinted on driver's licenses in some states. And, in some instances, personal information may be available online at computer terminals accessible to large numbers of employees at major customers of large data services.

The problem has been multiplied by a variety of Internet scams used by con artists to convince people to divulge sensitive personal information. A favorite is phishing - in which victims are lured by e-mail to fraudulent copies of legitimate Web sites that request the information.

While capturing confidential identity information seems easier than ever, in this credit-centered culture, the negative consequences have never been larger. Damaged credit can cost the victim a better job, an affordable home and even make it impossible to rent a car - rental firms routinely require a credit card and many will not accept debit cards.

Delores Fair, a 28-year-old facilities manager who lives in Gaithersburg, fears that she may never be able to repair her damaged credit.

Fair, who plans to marry in April, discovered in 2000 that her Social Security number had been used by someone in western Ohio beginning in 1996. Unpaid bills included $6,000 owed to a Toledo hospital and $1,700 in cable bills.

The hospital isn't suing Fair but has refused to lift its claim against her.

The thief was eventually arrested in Michigan when she attempted to use Fair's Social Security number to borrow money to buy a car. Her penalty for stealing thousands of dollars and an important part of Fair's life? Ninety days in jail and three years of probation.

Fair is bitter about the sentence. "She's ruined me," she said. "I'll probably never have a credit card again."

Robinson, the Prince George's County librarian, is similarly frustrated. The thief in Texas has repeatedly used her Social Security number to steal in recent years. When the impostor attempted to obtain a $1,800 loan secured by Robinson's home mortgage, she was arrested and convicted of attempted theft, but was soon free on probation.

Now, Robinson says, she has no debt but her credit is still sullied as collectors have continued to pursue her for the imposter's debts. She is now wrestling with the possibility that the only way to end this nightmare is to change her name. "I cried when I told my mother," she said.

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