In today’s post, Intersections’ Consumer Security Adviser Neal O’Farrell shares some frightening stories of true identity theft. These are extreme cases, where criminals literally used the identity of unknowing victims.
In all of Larry Edward Smith's 67 years, he had never had a criminal record or lived in California. But according to law enforcement, he had done both. And worse.
Turns out a career criminal from Auburn California had been using Larry Smith's identity, largely undetected, for nearly 20 years. And over those 20 years he had racked up numerous arrests and convictions in his victim's name, including drug offenses, welfare fraud, and forgery. In just one county alone, the thief has been convicted in seven separate cases, and in spite of serving time in a federal prison in the name of his victim, the authorities never spotted the mistake.
The impersonation spree apparently started a little more than eighteen years ago, when the thief managed to steal his victim's Social Security number and immediately used it to assume a new identity in order to avoid arrest.
The thief was finally busted when his fingerprints came back to his real identity and not to his victim. But too late for the victim. According to media reports, the victim has had his tax refunds garnished, has been denied medical care, has had his driver's license suspended, and even spent a week in jail for the crimes of his thief.
What's most troubling is that this case is far from unique. In the same week, we learned that a former journalist who went to his local police department to pay a small fine for fishing without a current license was promptly arrested. Not for fishing though, but apparently because of warrants for drug charges.
Not only was he wanted for drug charges, the police notified him that he had in fact made it to Nevada's 10 Most Wanted list. It took the journalist three days in jail before he was able to convince authorities that they had the wrong man. Turns out the real drug dealer had used his victim's identity to evade capture, and remains at large.
And the theft of an identity doesn't have to be complicated to cause great inconvenience and distress to a victim. Just last week I had to work on the case of a woman who received a ticket in the mail for running a red light. The photo that accompanied the ticket was of a different car and a different driver, and the victim wasn't even in the state at the time.
But the registered owner of the car not only gave authorities the victim's address, the thief also produced a real driver's license that was an identical copy of the victim's. Turns out the thief now rents an apartment where the victim lived more than three years ago. The victim now has to file a police report, complete an identity theft affidavit, gather her evidence, and take at least a day off work to appear in traffic court.
But under California law, the victim has to pay the $350+ fine first, if she wants to challenge the ticket in court, and then wait for the state to take its time to reimburse her. If she wins.
These and many more cases like them are a stark reminder of how identity theft can haunt victims for years after the crime, even when there's no financial crime involved. And once in the criminal records system, victims can find themselves fighting an endless battle, and often multiple arrests, as one moment of bad luck ends up haunting them for life.