Identity theft's effects hard for victims to shake
For people whose lives have been stolen, identity theft means months, even years, of ruined credit, threatening letters — and worse.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Identity theft victim Tammee Lynn of Everett battled for two years to restore her ruined credit, resolve more than 26 bogus accounts, and buy a home. Just recently, she received a $3,500 bill on a credit card she didn't open, she said.
Jackie Royal, 72, and her husband, Howard Royal, 96, have been hit hard by identity thieves, who drained their accounts, opened credit cards in their name and even changed their phone number.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Howard Royal, 96, and Jackie Royal, 72, aren't sure how their information was stolen, but the aftermath of the theft has been difficult. "There are very hard days when you get no peace," Jackie Royal said.
Dan Bates / The Herald
Tim Royal helps explain the depth of the hardship endured by his elderly parents. Howard Royal, 96, and Jackie Royal, 72, have been hit hard by identity thieves.
Ryan Andersen Scott gave the name of identity theft victim Matthew Frederic in this 1997 booking photo stapled to a letter the real Matthew Frederic received from the District Attorney's office in Riverside, Calif.
For the middle-aged medical worker, the heartbreak of losing the home she tried so hard to buy still stings.
For the Colorado businessman, the ordeal that began 16 years ago shows no signs of ending.
All are victims of identity theft -- their nerves frayed and patience exhausted from relentless attacks.
Each had personal information stolen that was used to create fraudulent accounts.
Their tales of misfortune crossed the desk of Everett police Sgt. Mark Thacker, who supervises four detectives in the department's financial fraud division. In the past five years, the unit has forwarded more than 1,100 cases to prosecutors.
Thacker is a gatekeeper with the unenviable task of deciding which fraud cases he can justify the time to investigate and which ones must be jettisoned.
"In this unit, all the victims are good, hard-working, everyday people who mind their own business," he said. "They are just good, honest people."
When identity thieves fess up to detectives, they often soft-pedal their guilt. They like to say that what they've done is a victimless crime because most banks and credit card companies offer zero-liability fraud protection.
The actual cost -- tens of billions of dollars a year nationwide -- gets passed on to consumers.
Just don't tell the Everett couple, the medical worker, the businessman and millions of other Americans unwittingly caught in the con game that identity theft doesn't hurt the little guy.
'Like we would be going to Hooters'
At 96 and 72, Howard and Jackie Royal are very much in love. They celebrated their 50th wedding anniversary in November.
They live in a small yellow rambler in south Everett. There is nothing extravagant about their lifestyle, although a pile of credit card bills might suggest otherwise.
A recent statement from Toys R Us, of all places, showed they owe more than $4,500. The curious list of expenses included two $400 charges to Hooters Online and frequent fast-food stops in and around Fort Lauderdale, Fla.
"Like we would be going to Hooters," said Howard Royal, a retired logger, commercial fisherman and Columbia River dam builder who uses a walker to get around. "And we didn't get a single toy."
Jen Rosenbrook sees vulnerable clients, including the Royals, in her job with Senior Services of Snohomish County, where she assists crime victims. She runs interference with banks and other corporations that can seem foreboding to the elderly.
"It can be so overwhelming," she said.
Tim Royal also has been helping his parents out of the financial chaos.
Someone, he said, has infiltrated every account, "duping financial institutions with ease and stealing away both their money and security with rapid, heartless precision."
Since November, their days have been a series of calls, occasionally hostile, from credit card companies and bill collectors, appointments with banks and daily trips to the mailbox to gather new batches of bogus bills and threatening letters.
The thieves even convinced a telecommunications provider to change the Royals' phone number of 40 years so they could intercept verifications from companies they would be targeting.
"Within days, lines of credit were abused and maxed out," Tim Royal said. "Credit cards were issued and lavish purchases appeared from points all across the country. Bank accounts were drained systematically."
To Jackie Royal, the toll from identity theft has been much worse than a burglary at their home a decade ago.
"At least that was one instance," she said. "This one is just never-ending. There are very hard days when you get no peace."
Police in Florida have given them hope. When they made two arrests near Fort Lauderdale, evidence collected included some of the Royals' personal information. One of the men, 32, was arrested for investigation of grand theft and criminal use of personal identification.
"It is still being investigated," Plantation, Fla., detective Phil Toman said. "There are other victims."
The cautious couple hope to learn how they became victims.
They have a locked mailbox and use a shredder on credit card sales pitches. They don't make transactions online and don't trust ATMs.
"They are as financially Amish people as you can get," their son said.
26 lines of credit opened in her name
After endless scrimping, Tammee Lynn found her dream home in 2011.
The house on a quarter acre had hardwood floors, a big back yard and a white picket fence out front.
Lynn, who schedules surgeries at The Everett Clinic, methodically built up her credit rating after a divorce. For 10 years, she made sure every bill was paid on time.
Finally, she was told she qualified for a loan. She put down earnest money and packed up her Everett apartment.
Three weeks after providing a bank with all of her personal financial information, she received a letter from Sears thanking her for opening an account. Two days later, a similar letter arrived from Macy's. Victoria's Secret, Zales, Walmart and others followed.
The Zales balance topped $3,000.
"Someone is wearing some real nice underwear and some expensive jewelry, and it isn't me," Lynn said.
There also were purchases of electronic equipment and attempts to buy cars.
The thieves would wait for paydays to transfer her money to unknown accounts.
In all, 26 lines of credit and five cellphone accounts were opened in her name. It fell to her to close each one.
Her loan officer told her his laptop computer had been stolen, but the bank insisted that wasn't the cause of her leaked personal data. She still doesn't know how it was pilfered.
As her credit rating plummeted, Lynn asked for extensions to close her home purchase.
On the fourth request, she was rejected.
It was a depressing time for a cheerful woman.
The year before, her son had died unexpectedly. He was 28.
Her credit in shambles, she was left to try to clean up the mess. It seemed the pall of deceit would never lift.
For weeks at work, she was on the phone every day with her door closed, trying to explain her predicament to corporations. On breaks, she would walk out to her truck, crawl into the cab and lie down.
"I would sit in my office and would just cry because I was so tired," she said.
Everett police worked long hours on the case. The fraudulent purchases all were made online.
Search warrants provided promising leads. Detectives believe they know where the cyber thefts occurred; they just can't say who was at the keyboard.
Two years later, Lynn's credit has been restored. She has bought a different house.
Yet she can't let her guard down. The leeches are hungry for easy money.
The other day, she got a $3,500 Discover card bill on a new account she didn't open.
"I don't think it will ever end," she said.
When a criminal uses his victim's name
As Matthew Frederic drove through a snowstorm in the Rockies, someone in sunny California was applying for a credit card in his name.
It was May 25, 1996, and Frederic was returning to his native Colorado to work for a financial planning firm. He was 24, recently married and eager to make a good impression.
He soon applied for a professional license to expand his responsibilities.
A background check uncovered a giant red flag: He'd amassed a $15,600 credit card debt on an overdrawn Bank of America account.
Frederic remembers someone from the company telling him: "You were in Las Vegas. You apparently had a good time."
Frederic had neither a good time nor a Bank of America credit card.
He spent months trying to clear his name. All the while, he wondered who had stolen his identity and how they did it.
Eventually, he got answers.
During the summer of 1996, police in Riverside County, Calif., arrested a man who had documents with Frederic's name on them, including a statement from the fraudulent credit card. The suspect, Ryan Andersen Scott, had worked at an auto dealership where Frederic bought a car.
Scott swiped personal information Frederic had provided to obtain financing, according to court papers.
In 1997, Scott was arrested by Riverside police -- this time for possessing meth and carrying a loaded weapon in public. He tried to pin the rap on Frederic, offering up the other man's name at booking. Scott's face and curly locks appear above Matthew Frederic's name and birth date in the booking photo.
In 1998, Scott was sentenced to more than three years in prison.
Justice had been done; Frederic's fears were allayed.
Only, with identity theft, it often isn't that tidy. Once in the wrong hands, personal information can be tucked away for years or bartered among addicts and thieves.
Fast forward 16 years to Christmas 2012. An application on Frederic's iPhone alerted him of a hit to his credit score. It said he had bought $1,200 in electronics equipment hours earlier from a store in Everett.
Since then, the Middleton, Colo., man said there has been a flurry of attempts to open lines of credit in his name.
With each furtive foray, Frederic gets notice on his iPhone and tries to thwart the attack.
Whoever is behind it has convincing fake ID and does his homework. He can answer security questions, such as Frederic's wife's name, and list former addresses.
Frederic suspects Ryan Scott is up to his old tricks. Court records show that Scott moved to Snohomish County.
In February 2007, Scott, then 37, was arrested at an Everett casino after passing bad checks. Police found him in possession of credit cards, identification and checks belonging to three people.
From the backseat of a patrol car, Scott told an Everett police officer that his name was Matthew Frederic.
The real Matthew Frederic looks forward to meeting Scott some day, ideally in a Snohomish County courtroom.
Everett cops are investigating.
Identity theft can inflict misery through a thousand cuts. Frederic has lost time with his family. He has been fingerprinted by the Colorado Bureau of Investigation to prove that he's who he says he is, just to buy a shotgun from a sporting goods store. And he keeps a letter from the Riverside prosecutor's office explaining the tangled tale of his identity in the event police mistake him for his impostor.
He has told Everett detectives he'd gladly pay his own way to Washington to testify if they ever arrest the person here who is messing with his accounts.
"I will be there in a heartbeat," he said.
The Washington State Attorney General's Office offers several recommendations to reduce the risk of identity theft.
- Don't give your Social Security number, mother's maiden name or account numbers to strangers, especially by phone, Internet or mail.
- Pay attention to what time of the month your bills arrive. If a bill is late, call the creditor to make sure an identity thief hasn't changed your billing address to keep you from discovering phony charges.
- Guard against mail theft by not leaving outgoing mail in the mailbox. Consider a locked mailbox.
- Protect your credit card, bank and phone accounts with passwords.
- Don't carry a Social Security card.
- Don't carry credit cards or ID cards you don't need.
- Shred personal information, such as copies of credit applications, insurance forms, physician statements, bank checks and statements and credit offers from the mail.
- Request your free annual credit report. The federal Fair Credit Reporting Act allows you to obtain a free copy of your credit report from each of the major credit reporting companies, at your request, once every 12 months.
Eric Stevick: 425-339-3446, firstname.lastname@example.org.
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