BY SAM STERN — Guy Owen’s problems began in July 2015 when he received an unexpected correspondence from his bank via his online account. “I got a message from the bank saying they had approved my new credit card, but there was a small problem and they would like me to get in touch with them,” he said. Owen knew he had not applied for a card, as he was in the process of getting a home equity loan to repair a damaged porch.
This initial inconsistency was only the beginning of numerous fraudulent credit card applications. All of the first applications went out on the same day, July 28, 2015. The companies involved were all businesses and banks that Owen had patronized including JC Penney, Barclays and Citi.
Owen said victims of identity fraud are often faced with an uncertain resolution process with no clear answer. “I started asking questions of the bank. … They gave me a little bit of information but the funny part about this is when you have identity theft for the most part the banks clam up.”
According to the Federal Trade Commission, 9.9 million people have their identity stolen every year. Owen, a Hyattsville resident, is one of those people.
Identity theft is unique because of the nature of the crime. Many times, the perpetrator is a faceless entity protected by the anonymity of an online presence. “The hardest part is the identity of the person who stole the identity is hard to get,” said Lt. Hyattsville City Police Department Spokesperson Lt. Chris Purvis.
“The [banks in question] said they would take off any identifying information of the applicant,” said Owen.
Police who attempt to prosecute these crimes also run into jurisdictional issues. “I started investigating ID theft in the early 2000s. We wouldn’t know who would take control of the investigation,” said Purvis.
This practice has improved through the years to the point where victims of identity theft can reach out to their local police force for some measure of assistance. In these cases, police must work with law enforcement from other areas.
“We reach out to the jurisdiction where the suspect is and work with them,” said Purvis. He said that while the methods to catch identity thieves have improved, the problem itself has grown worse. “We have come to realize that it is a hard case to investigate. It’s a hard case to get a suspect on, and we’ve been trying to educate people on how to not get your [identity] stolen,” he said.
According to USA.gov’s prevention guide, there are measures one can take to lessen the chances of a stolen identity. Steps to take include using complex passwords, checking your credit score frequently, and using your Social Security number only when completely necessary. Gizmodo.com explains that many times identities are stolen because people are too loose with their information over the phone and in emails. Failing to shred sensitive documents and responding to spam can also increase the likelihood of being victimized.
Purvis said a stolen credit or debit card and a stolen identity are not synonymous. “Everyone’s credit card is gonna get hacked no matter what. … There are certain things that need to happen when someone takes over an identity … that’s where it can be ungodly.”
The Federal Trade Commission recommends an immediate five-step process to follow right after the identity is taken including calling the companies involved, placing a fraud alert on your credit and reporting to the FTC and local police department. As Owen’s case has shown, however; situations like these are not always so cut and dry.
The 1998 Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act created a new legal category for this type of crime. The statute defines identity theft as “knowingly transfer[ring] or us[ing], without lawful authority, a means of identification of another person with the intent to commit, or to aid or abet, any unlawful activity that constitutes a violation of Federal law, or that constitutes a felony under any applicable State or local law.”
“The Federal Trade Commission is responsible for receiving and processing complaints from people who believe they may be victims of identity theft, providing informational materials to those people, and referring those complaints to appropriate entities, including the major credit reporting agencies and law enforcement agencies,” according to the Department of Justice (DOJ) identity theft page.
The DOJ also must contact the agency that pertains to their specific case. For example, if a Social Security number is taken, the person in question must contact the Social Security Administration.
“It could be that I go to Social Security and say hey I’d like to start taking my benefits and they say no you started that a year ago or two years ago,” said Owen. Victims of identity theft tend to take on a mentality of constant vigilance and worry that more issues will arise.
Owen’s experiences point to the conclusion that the best course of action against identity theft is to prevent its occurrence in the first place. The path to resolution is murky at best, with many questions along the way.
“When you get mail from other people it’s spooky. You don’t know what is going to happen or when it will come back to haunt you,” said Owen.