By TOM ZELLER Jr.
Paul Fairchild, a 34-year-old Web developer in Edmond, Okla., has
never spent $500 on fine tobacco. He has never slaked a shoe fetish
with $1,500 charges at Manolo Blahnik and Neiman Marcus, nor has he
ever bought diamonds online, furs in SoHo, or anything at
e-Luxury.com. He has never owned an apartment building in Brooklyn,
and he has never peddled flesh.
Over the last two years, however, his credit report has suggested
In retelling his ordeal with identity theft, Mr. Fairchild has
developed the acid sarcasm and droll nonchalance of a standup comic -
a defense mechanism, his wife, Rachel, says, that belies two years of
"Once this happens, you can't believe how deep the rabbit hole goes,"
Mr. Fairchild said.
Indeed, in a year of prominent cases of stolen or lost consumer
information -- from the hacking of university computers and the
disappearance of backup tapes at Citigroup, to fraudulent downloads
from the databases of companies like ChoicePoint and LexisNexis -- the
rabbit hole seems to be getting deeper.
About 10 million Americans fall victim each year to identity theft,
according to the Federal Trade Commission. And in about a third of
those cases, victims see far more than their existing credit card
accounts tapped. Their private information is used by thieves to open
new accounts, secure loans and otherwise lead parallel and often
For victims like Mr. Fairchild -- and two others who recounted their
troubles and shared their sometimes vast paper trails -- it can be an
unnerving, protracted whodunit, with collection agents demanding
payment for cars they have never driven, credit card accounts they
never opened, loans they never obtained, and myriad other debts
accrued by shadowy versions of themselves.
Prosecutions are rare, and police investigations -- when they do
happen -- are time-consuming, costly and easily stymied. A 2003 study
by the Gartner Inc. consulting firm suggested that an identity thief
had about a 1 in 700 chance of getting caught.
"It's a crime in which you can get a lot of money, and have a very low
probability of ever getting caught," Mari J. Frank, a lawyer and
author of several books on identity theft, said in an interview.
"Criminals are now saying, Why am I using a gun?"
Just how many of the millions of new cases each year stem from the
widely reported cracks in the nation's electronic data troves is
impossible to know. A study by Javelin Strategy and Research
indicated that the most frequently reported source of stolen
information, at least among those who knew how it happened, was
decidedly low-tech: a lost or stolen wallet or checkbook. And some
experts have suggested that consumers are much more likely to fall
victim to a rogue employee -- at a doctor's office, say, or a
collection agency -- than to a gang of hackers infiltrating a database.
But however their information is obtained, victims are still left with
the unsettling realization that the keys to their inner lives as
consumers, as taxpayers, as patients, as drivers and as homeowners
have been picked from their pockets and distributed among thieves.
"Once it happens, you can never be certain that it won't happen
again," said Beth Givens, the director of the Privacy Rights
Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy group. "You can never let your
Mr. Fairchild, Kenneth Wasserman and Toshka Cargill -- each from
different parts of the country and from varying economic backgrounds
-- know precisely what Ms. Givens means. Their experiences with
identity theft follow.
[TELECOM Digest Editor's Note: This is a good article in the New York
Times Tehcnology Section, and I suggest you may want to look for it
in the paper and read more of it:
http://telecom-digest.org/td-extra/nytimes.html (see tchnology section).
Also I want to mention a relative of mine who has had identity theft
problems in recent months. He says the bank has been on his case about
a 'house he owns' (he owns no such thing) which has a mortgage payment
overdue. He told them several times he was not the owner (as a result
of ID theft someone bought it in _his_ name) and telling the bank is
like talking to a brick wall. I suggested to him since it is 'your
building' (as per the bank statement) just tell them to go ahead and
foreclose on it; take it back. (wink!) It should be interesting if
bank decides to do that. PAT]