As cases of identity fraud rise sharply, local police, the attorney general and the Secret Service warn that when it comes to dropping names, personal information should be kept top secret. 

Identity Crisis

Someone out there was pretending to be Michael Swearingen. And whoever it was, was crafty — making sure never to sign anything, lying low when suspicions seemed near. The only thing certain was that Swearingen's credit-card account number had been swiped, and now, the impostor was threatening to strip away something Swearingen had worked his entire life to protect: his identity.

Credit reports, it seems, are as personal as diaries — and equally disclosing.

Nearly a year ago, Swearingen's credit-card company billed him $299 for clothes purchased from a Pennsylvania-based retailer. It wasn't an outrageous amount, and he might not have missed it. Problem is, it was stuff Swearingen couldn't use. He'd never received it. What's more, Swearingen never placed the order. He'd been ripped off. And it was just the beginning. Vulnerable and deflated, Swearingen says he never realized having his identity stolen would be so devastating and nearly impossible to repair. "I wanted to hire a lawyer and sue," he says. "If I were to quit my job tomorrow and become a criminal, I know what I'd do," Swearingen says caustically.

Swearingen is the victim of what's known, increasingly, as identity theft.

Now, Swearingen's nightmare has become too familiar. And although no exact figures could be determined by the local police, the Office of the Attorney General or the local office of the Secret Service, all three offices insist that identity fraud is pervasive. So much so that it's perked up ears in the General Assembly. The House Courts of Justice Committee recently approved House Bill 373, legislation sponsored by Del. Kathy J. Byron, R-Lynchburg, and endorsed by Attorney General Mark Earley.

"The aim of the bill is to prevent one of the fastest growing crimes in the nation," says Earley. The new legislation classifies identity fraud as the intent to use another person's identity and personal information such as credit card account numbers, unlawfully. Financial losses that incur less than $200 are classified as a Class One misdemeanor, punishable by up to one year in jail and a $2,500 fine; losses of more than $200 are a Class Six felony, punishable by up to five years in jail and a $2,500 fine.

"We are tasked with standing in [the victim's] shoes," explains Earley. "The legislation is an effective deterrent."

It's a deterrent that comes too late to catch Swearingen's thief.

"It was a fluke that I even caught it," tells Swearingen, president and owner of Home Exterior Designs, a home finance company in Richmond. "I don't keep balances on my credit," says Swearingen, maintaining his credit history has always been rated outstanding by credit reporting bureaus like Equifax, Experian and Trans Union that use what's called the Beacon report to rate a customer's potential risk. "Mine usually is between 700 to 800 and it dropped to 600," he says angrily. "I couldn't get credit on a dime."

Now Swearingen keeps every receipt and traces each transaction credited to his account. He has to. Until now, identity fraud or theft — where impostors misuse personal identifying information, including social security numbers, account numbers, drivers licenses and addresses — largely has been a "hush hush" type of crime, explains Swearingen. Identity theft has been given little attention by victims — who often feel embarrassed and are reluctant to file reports with their credit card companies or police.

But now, with personal information readily available on preapproved credit mailings, marketing lists, checks, receipts, and all kinds of Internet accounts, illegally obtaining someone else's identity — and account numbers — can be as easy as checking out a video. In fact, it's so commonplace that determining the number of identity fraud crimes is nearly impossible.

"We don't track it anymore," says Special Agent Larry McCallum with the Secret Service office in Richmond. McCallum's office of 11 agents investigates all types of fraud crimes throughout Central Virginia, crimes that add up to roughly 50 cases per month. But, he cautions, this barometer is not always accurate, and numbers fluctuate seasonally, with the holidays being the highest. "We know we're arresting a lot of people," says McCallum, citing a few cases of identity fraud that have originated in Richmond and been tracked as far away as Hong Kong. But after January, the number of cases falls off to lower than 50 per month.

Part of the problem is identifying when and where identity theft occurs. It's a task left largely to the victim, who first has to be made aware that personal information has been used by an impostor. Because most credit statements are issued monthly, elapsed time between when illegal activity begins and when it's noticed can amount to weeks. Even when it's reported to authorities, bringing charges against the perpetrator is difficult and can take months.

"There isn't a quick solve," explains Detective Sean Adams with the Economic Crime Division of the Richmond Police, who says many of his cases take up to three months to solve. "It's such a nebulous thing."

Within the Richmond Police Department four detectives and a sergeant make up the Economic Crime Division, the office that investigates myriad local fraudulent crimes. "You don't charge someone with identity theft," says Adams. Even with Byron's proposed legislation, Adams believes the way these crimes are actually investigated and how charges are brought won't change much. Most crimes in which personal information is stolen must be charged as some other form of fraudulent activity — activity that depends first on a victim to report the crime, and then on the ability to bring a quantifiable charge such as forgery or larceny.

What's more, there's the issue of jurisdiction. For instance: If a $50 charge is made to your bank account in Richmond for a flower delivery from a New Jersey florist to an apartment in New York, where does the crime occur? In this case, it's New York. In Swearingen's case, it was Richmond, or so he believes, because even though the retailer's home office is in Pennsylvania, the deliveries were made in Richmond — just not to Swearingen's address. It's more than confusing. And it requires a task force and an abundance of patience.

"A large amount has to be processed federally," says Adams. "We don't have the authority to subpoena information in New York." That's why investigating identity fraud often involves a tag-team approach between local authorities, such as Adams, the post office, vendors, credit card companies and, especially, the Secret Service.

The Secret Service has jurisdiction over all types of financial fraud — including identity theft — but it usually does not investigate individual cases like Swearingen's unless the dollar amount is extremely high or the case is believed to be part of a fraud ring.

Detective Adams, Special Agent McCallum and Attorney General Earley attribute much of the spike in identity fraud to the easy access to personal information that technology like the Internet provides. Still, for some criminals, all it takes is a phone call or two or even 20 to request unauthorized changes of address, get new credit cards in someone else's name, and establish lines of credit to order thousands of dollars worth of goods from catalog companies. And, as McCallum warns: "There are those who go Dumpster diving looking for receipts" that might contain personal information and have been thrown away.

Swearingen's troubles didn't end after he contacted his credit-card company, the retailer and the police. Soon after the $299 charge showed up on his credit-card statement, a second and even more alarming $2,800 charge appeared on his American Express. Again, Swearingen didn't place the order and he never saw the goods. But the catalog company says they were shipped out in March.

Although legally responsible only for $50 of the total amount charged unlawfully to his account — the vendors absorb the rest, once it's reported — Swearingen has to battle credit reporting bureaus to have his credit history repaired. "Now I have an uphill battle," Swearingen says, adding: "It's a good thing I didn't need to buy a car. It's not the money, it's the damage it does to your credit report."

"There's a lot of information that floats into the wrong hands," says Earley. "Identifying information is used to steal money and used to steal identities. It's like getting gum out of your hair to undo the damage."

For more information on how to prevent identity theft or what to do if you're a victim, the Office of the Attorney General provides "How To Avoid Identity Theft," available at www.vaag.com, or call (804)

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