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Stolen Credit

Caramie Schnell
Matt IndenDespite, or perhaps because of Leslie Reed's impeccable credit, someone stole her identity and racked up about $50,000 worth of debt.
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Leslie Reed never gave the commercials a second thought. Then, three years ago, Reed found out her identity had been stolen.

“I wouldn’t wish this upon my worst enemy,” Reed said.

By the time Reed, 28, checked her credit report she had upwards of 30 different credit accounts that had been opened without her consent. Reed also found out she owed $50,000 in charges she didn’t make.

“A woman in St. Louis, Missouri used my social security number,” Reed said. “She’d walk into stores and open up instant credit cards, get maybe $3,000 in instant credit and max it out, then never go back and touch those cards again. She basically went on a three-week shopping spree with my social security number. It was awful.”

For Reed, a woman that had a sparkling credit score (“nearly 800,” she said), realizing someone had stolen her identity was jarring.

“I’d never given (identity theft) much thought,” Reed admitted. “I’d never known anybody that had dealt with it. It’s something that you never really think could happen to you.”

Colorado was ranked fifth in the nation in 2004 for the number of identity theft victims per capita, according to Colorado Public Interest Research Group (copirg.org), a consumer advocate group located in Denver. Identity theft is now the No. 1 consumer crime in Colorado, according to the Attorney General’s office. The number of people that have filed identity theft complaints in Colorado has increased by more than 65 percent in the past three years alone.

Here in Eagle County, local police officials have been dealing with the repercussions. Between Jan. 1 of this year and October, the Avon Police Department has had 13 criminal impersonation cases. “There’s a lot of them and it’s growing,” said Avon Police Det. Paul Arnold.

Most of the identity theft cases Arnold has seen involve illegal immigrants using other people’s identities to obtain employment, he said. Last spring, Arnold got a phone call from an 80-year-old man from El Paso, Texas. The IRS had contacted the man, claiming he owed $20,000 in back taxes from construction work he’d supposedly done here in the valley.

“Yet, he’d never even been to Colorado,” Arnold said.

Reed, a structural engineer with Monroe and Newell Engineers in Avon, didn’t know her identity had been stolen until she received a letter from state authorities alerting her of a red flag on her credit report. When Reed got a copy of her credit report a few weeks later, she immediately knew there was a serious problem – the report listed two different names and two different addresses attached to her social security number, along with nearly 30 accounts she’d never opened.

“She bought jewelry and furniture and I think she bought herself a new wardrobe,” Reed said. “She went to Lowe’s and Home Depot, Best Buy, Circuit City, the list goes on.”

The detective assigned to Reed’s case told her that her particular case of identity theft was likely random, as well as one of the worst cases he’d seen.

“The detective thought maybe she just made up a social security number and it just happened to be mine,” Reed said.

Three months ago, the detective informed Reed that a warrant was out for the arrest of the St. Louis woman. Reed has since seen a picture of the thief, a heavy-set black woman. Reed is a slender white woman with shoulder-length brown hair.

“The stores that issued the credit never bothered to verify the name, the address, the date of birth,” Reed said. “They just went with the social.”

Roslyn Anderson, the registrar at Eagle Valley Middle School, was routinely checking her bank account on the Internet when she noticed some strange charges.

“All the sudden I got hit, online, one charge for $100, another charge for $200 and another for $300,” she said. “I’m just watching (the charges) come in, I’m like holy crow!”

Within an hour, a representative from Wells Fargo, her bank, called to ask about the suspicious transactions.

A thief had obtained Anderson’s debit card information, along with her name, social security number, address, and everything else necessary to make online purchases. Anderson suspected a small online website out of Toronto, Canada may have been the source of her problems.

“I had just recently, about a month before that, purchased some online dread care products,” she said. “Maybe the site wasn’t secure. It just happened to be right after that, that it happened. I’ll never buy anything from a small little company like that again.”

Wells Fargo cancelled the card. Though three charges totaling $750 had already cleared the account, the bank credited back the money, along with the bounced check charges that resulted. When Anderson checked her credit report after the incident she found out that someone had tried to apply for a mortgage in Massachusetts in her name, as well. Luckily, the loan wasn’t approved.

“I kind of had crappy credit, anyway,” she admitted.

“I can’t believe somebody can get that information. For awhile there I was like, ‘wow, if they can get that information, are they peeking in my doors?’ Anderson said. “It’s like, who has (my information)? I was going through everyone in my mind – who did I piss off, who did I make mad?”

Arnold is trying to bring Immigration and Customs Enforcement or ICE (formerly the INS) officers together with representatives from local banks and businesses. The hope is that the class, which will focus on identifying forged documents and what to do with them, will help cut back on both identity theft and fraud.

“(The companies) are left holding the bag, so it behooves them to do this,” Arnold said. “I think there’s enough interest that this is a good time to get it going. It’s become such an issue nationwide, with homeland security and everything, people are tired of paying extra taxes to support other people.”

The 80-year-old Texas man may not have to pay the $20,000 in overdue taxes.

“We did some investigation and proved that the man whose real identity it was wasn’t the man working up here,” Arnold added, “and we sent that off to the proper agencies, which helped him out.”

But victims frequently are stuck doing most of the repairs themselves. After discovering the fraud, Reed had to contact each company with a fraudulently opened account, explain the situation, file paperwork, sign and have notarized affidavits citing the fraud and write letters to the credit agencies to have the accounts removed from her report. Reed said she spent countless lunch hours attached to the phone.

“You’re at the mercy of the customer service rep that’s making $7 an hour at headquarters,” she said.

“I probably pulled my credit 30 times with each bureau to see if things had fallen off and new things would pop up,” she added. “I would think things were cleared up and then they’d go to collections. And once they went to collections, it was even harder to track down. It was a nightmare.”

Reed’s own credit card, which she’d held for five years without so much as a late payment, was canceled. She was left with only a debit card through her bank because no one would issue her any sort of credit.

Two months ago, Reed purchased her first home, a condo in Edwards’ Miller Ranch. Even though she had 20 percent for her down payment, it took her some time to find a bank willing to issue her a mortgage without an interest rate nearly three points higher than what her true credit would have deserved.

“I was turned down from five lenders, no one would lend me money for a mortgage. I had police reports, everything,” Reed said. “That’s when it hit me: it’s so unfair. I’ve never carried any debt in my life, I have a good job. I had savings and none of that mattered.”

Caramie Schnell can be reached for comment at cschnell@vailtrail.com.


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