The Daily Shield welcomes Intersections’ Consumer Security Adviser Neal O’Farrell. In today’s article, Neal shares a victim’s story and brings home the point once again that damages caused by identity theft don’t always involve money.
I often hear from law enforcement that if identity theft victims are reimbursed by their banks or credit cards providers, and don't lose any money, then they're not really victims and shouldn't expect much sympathy. And I also hear from victims that they wish they had lost some money, because if that was their only loss it could put an end to the nightmare that seems to go on forever.
The reality of identity theft is that the cases that involve things other than money are often the toughest on the victim. And that's especially true when it comes to a stolen or forged driver's license.
One case I'm currently working on involves an elderly victim in San Diego California who has been fighting to get her driver's license back for three years. It turns out that a thief had been using the victim's identity for more than a decade, and in addition to numerous new credit accounts opened, the thief had also racked up DUIs and other traffic offenses using the victim's license.
According to the victim, the DMV was completely unsympathetic to her plight and her claims that she was the victim. The DMV repeatedly advised the victim that her record could not be cleared or her license re-issued until the identity theft case went through a police investigation and the courts.
Problem is, few police departments or courts are pursuing identity theft cases, and especially the smaller ones. And the victim's local Sherriff's department in California had already said they would not take on the case.
So that has left the victim in limbo, unable to drive a car or even cash checks. To add to the victim's frustration, the thief has been caught and is in jail in Nebraska for numerous identity theft and fraud charges. Law enforcement and the DMV in Nebraska have been very helpful and sympathetic, and have provided letters confirming they have the thief and the victim does not appear to be responsible for the record on her driver's license.
The California DMV still didn't budge. And that's when I got involved. My first step was to go to the California DMV web site to see if there was any information or service that could help in this kind of victim situation. Although this is a very common crime, and compromised driver's licenses come up in nearly half of all id theft cases I investigate, I could find nothing on the DMV site that would help.
I finally found a number for DMV investigations, and that gave me some hope that at least I might be able to talk to the right people. The first investigator I spoke to was gruff and rude, and didn't seem to want to help or even talk to me. Instead she gave me a couple of hotline numbers to call. As soon as a hung up the phone I called the numbers she gave me, and they were all out of service. Another dead end.
Undeterred, I decided to call another investigator office, this one closer to the victim's home. To my surprise, this investigator was even ruder. She refused to answer my questions, constantly cut me off, tried to hang up, and told me she wouldn't speak to me because I wasn't a victim.
She asked if the victim has ever contacted the DMV before and I said she had, a year ago, but couldn't remember who she spoke to or what number she called. Too bad, said the investigator. The victim would need to go back to the first DMV office she contacted and start the process all over again.
Not getting anywhere, I tried another tactic. What if I was just looking for "general" advice on what any victim should do in a case like this? The investigator curtly responded that it wasn't her job to give out advice. Probably an understatement to say I was a bit steamed by now, so when the investigator tried to give me the same dud numbers her colleague had given me earlier, I demanded she find me a real number to call.
She put me on hold and eventually came back with a number for yet another investigator. I called right away and guess who picked up? Yet another incredibly gruff, rude, irritable and irritated investigator who was no more sympathetic and had no interest in speaking to me.
But he did give me the same advice. He suggested that the victim ask law enforcement in California to investigate the case and let the courts deal with it. Where have I heard that before? So when I mentioned causally that we all know that because of budget challenges law enforcement rarely investigates identity theft, just as in this case, the investigator assured me that I was completely wrong in that assertion and that law enforcement "always investigates identity theft."
That's where the discussion ended, but it was the clearest reminder of just how much out of touch the California DMV is with the crime of identity theft and the plight of victims. We're now going to look at ways we can change this, and maybe encourage the DMV to look into its own investigator training. Even if they don't learn anything more about identity theft, they might learn about the concepts of courtesy and customer service.
But there was some good news. We were finally able to get the victim in touch with a DMV office that would accept the documentation proving she was a victim, and promised to issue a new license in the coming weeks. Time will tell. But there's little doubt that the DMV victimized this victim all over again, and for no other reason than indifference.
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