Legislative Testimony of John and Jane Doe
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Note: The following is the testimony of John and Jane Doe before the Maryland Legislature in 1999 in support of a bill that would have restricted uses of the Social Security number. The bill failed. The Doe's have also written a narrative of their identity theft experience, included at the end of this testimony, entitled "Social Insecurity." The narrative contains a number of tips for victims of identity theft, based on their experience.
I am a retired Air Force Officer. If my wife or I had written a bad check, not paid our bills, or made any false statements while on active duty, I would have been kicked out of the Air Force. After I retired from the Air Force I worked as a physicist at a Laboratory in a major U.S. university. While working for this Laboratory, any fiscal irresponsibility could have jeopardized my security clearance and threatened my job.
Even into retirement we have continued this practice of fiscal responsibility. My wife and I have spent a lifetime of paying all our bills on time and never missing a credit card, mortgage or car payment. We consistently paid off our debts ahead of time and never, in a lifetime of sometimes struggling or doing without items we wanted or needed to find the funds, defaulted on anything. We had never been denied credit and were always quickly approved for any loan application.
It was quite a shock to us when we suddenly found out that we had no credit. We were being accused of defaulting on loans, not making car payments, and overdue on credit card payments. We were suddenly being called by stores that we never heard of, banks demanding payment on cars or loans that we didn't have, collection agencies demanding that we pay immediately on some account we never heard of, or face legal action against us. Some of the creditors would even offer to settle the account for a reduced amount. Of course we would refuse.
When our lawyer would send the creditor a sworn affidavit attesting that we were not the ones that opened the account, the creditor would then transfer the account to a third party collection agency. When a collection agency would receive our affidavit stating that we are not the people that opened the account, they would assign it or sell it to another collection agency. So far we have had to deal with 15 third party collection agencies. They are not pleasant people to deal with!
My wife presently has a civil judgement against her for furniture bought in her name from Greens Furniture Company located in Texas and delivered to an address in Texas. We demanded and received a copy of the application from the store. The only thing correct on this application is the social security number and the last name. All other data is either missing or wrong. Based on a social security number identification, a judge in Texas awarded a judgement against my wife for the purchase amount of the furniture. In spite of having our attorney talk to both the judge and a representative of the furniture store and sending them a sworn affidavit, this case is still open. Neither one of us have ever lived in the state of Texas. We have had a home in Maryland for the past 30 years.
We also discovered that five automobiles, all located in Texas and Oklahoma, had been purchased in our name. We were the ones accused of not making the payments. When we finally requested and received our credit reports, we found that they contained a total of 33 delinquent fraud accounts listed in our names and totaling over $113,000.
We have been fighting this nightmare since March 1997, when we first realized what was happening. It has cost us over $6,000 in attorney fees. We have spent many hours attempting to communicate with the three major credit-reporting agencies and in locating the telephone numbers and addresses for the fraud accounts listed in the credit reports issued by them. Banks and other creditors have even admitted to having our home in Maryland under surveillance even though the fraud accounts were opened in other states such as Texas, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Georgia or California. A bank admitted to almost towing away my 1990 Bronco, parked at my home in Maryland, thinking it might be a 1996 Jeep Cherokee bought in Texas that they wanted to repossess.
We have been through hell for the past three years and don't see an end to it. This is being prolonged by the cute little recycling scheme that the creditors use. They will sell or transfer your account to another collector after you prove to them that you are not the person responsible for opening it. They rely on some people giving up and paying off the fraud account to get rid of their harassment. Let me assure you that they will not get one dime from us. We will fight them with whatever it takes and for as long as it takes us to get our names and good credit rating restored.
Further, we will support any legitimate government effort that will truly protect our identity and prosecute those who abuse it. This includes the creditors who open these fraud accounts through their negligence and greed, and then attempt to collect from the person whose identity was stolen. Also, I would like to include the lack of accountability of the credit agencies that continuously add fraud data to your record by blindly accepting, without challenging, the very obvious bogus information provided to them by their customers. When the fraud account becomes delinquent and the fraud address is non-responsive; these same credit agencies will then furnish the creditors with your correct address. This irresponsible action on their part then becomes the basis of harassment by a creditor for an account that was opened in your name through their own negligence, greed and lack of accountability.
How can this be possible? How can someone else actually open accounts or borrow money in your name? Well, it's quite easy, as we belatedly found out. All that person needs to do this is a close approximation of your first and last name and your SOCIAL SECURITY number. Spelling or accuracy doesn't matter. Nothing else about you is relevant. Different addresses various spouse names, birthday, any random place of employment, and spelling of this information is irrelevant. Age or any other personal information doesn't matter. All that is required is a first and last name that almost matches a social security number. The credit agencies readily verify an application if the social security number presented shows a good credit payment record. It doesn't matter if a different address, birthday, spouse's name or any variation to their recorded data is submitted with the application for their verification. The false data submitted by their customer now becomes your information. Again every transaction that involves your credit records is based on only one major piece of identification, your social security number.
The social security number has become a national means of identification. Everyone demands it to transact any business with you. In many cases it is freely given by unsuspecting people and frequently mishandled and not protected by those receiving it. Banks want you to write it on your checks, stores want it on your credit card purchases, and medical facilities want it in addition to your drivers license number. You are required to use your social security on transaction involving local, county, state and federal governments.
The Military now uses the social security number as a serial number. Indeed, my wife's problems with identity theft can be traced back to the year that she first had to use her own social security number on her Air Force dependents ID card. Prior to that, my social security number had been used. When her credit was destroyed, they started on me.
A social security number now has the same status as a numbered Swiss bank account or a Personal Identification Number (PIN) and should be afforded at least the same or greater protection. It should be guarded and not given to everyone requesting it. My wife and I have refused to purchase items from stores that wanted our social security number or drivers license number put on a charge card slip or personal check. We would offer to show them our identification but forbid them from writing any numbers on the check or charge slip.Our original social security cards, which we still use, have a notice printed across the front that boldly states: "NOT TO BE USED FOR IDENTIFICATION".
WHAT HAPPENED ?
This nightmare began in March 1997 when we received a phone call from Nations Bank in Norfolk,Virginia asking to speak to "John Doe". They wanted to know why I was delinquent in making payments on a 1996 Jeep Cherokee bought in Dallas, Texas. They were handling the account for a branch in Dallas, Texas that had been opened with them on October 16, 1996 to buy a Jeep Cherokee costing $27,424.
We told them that we have lived in Maryland for the past 32 years and have never lived in Texas. They said that they had obtained this Maryland address through the credit bureau. When I told them that I did not know what they were talking about as I do not have a Jeep Cherokee. After some discussion I agreed to fax them a copy of my Maryland drivers license in exchange for a copy of the loan agreement.
They further stated that they had my Maryland house under surveillance and had almost towed my 1990 Ford Bronco, thinking it was a Jeep Cherokee. They called me back stating that the signature on my license was different from the one on the loan application and that I was obviously not the person who bought the vehicle. There were many errors in the loan application; the social security number, and the first and last name were the only correct entries on the application. Only the first and last name was given with no middle initial, an address in Texas, a date of birth that placed the applicant in their early forties, and a place of employment in Texas. If the credit bureau had done any checking they would have discovered that my social security number was issued before the loan applicant was born. I am now over 70 years old.
This prompted my wife and I to request copies of our credit reports from all three credit bureaus. When they arrived, we discovered that we had 33 fraud accounts totaling $113,000. This included 5 vehicles, credit card debts, various loans and other transactions.
How could this happen? The fraud accounts first started when my wife was required to use her own social security number on her Air Force dependants ID card. Prior to that time, my social security number was used. I believe that they did not start on me initially due to my status as a retired Air Force officer. It is a federal offense to impersonate an officer whereas it was not a crime to steal the identity of a civilian. However, when they maxed out my wife's credit, they started on me.
With 33 fraud accounts on our credit bureau records, our credit was ruined. We have made applications for credit that has been denied. I have been turned down for credit at K-Mart and Sam's Club. I had a problem getting a security system installed in my vacation home in South Carolina due to the fraud information still contained in my credit report. I had to pay cash for a replacement heat and cooling system, as I could not qualify for a low risk loan.
Since retiring we have been trying to move to South Carolina. This would involve purchasing a home there prior to selling our home in Maryland. We have been unable to get a reasonable loan as we are considered a high risk.
Currently our credit reports show no delinquent accounts or wrong data. However, this has happened before. We had our reports cleared over a year ago only to have to fraud information show up again. Even though we had a fraud alert put on our reports, the false data would continue to appear. The creditor would remove the fraud accounts after we would have our attorney send them a sworn affidavit that we were not the persons who opened the account. The creditor would then remove the account and then transfer it to a collection agency. Then the cycle would start over.
We have dealt with 15 collection agencies, so far in trying to clear our names. One account has been recycled three times. This was for an Oreck vacuum cleaner. The account with Household Bank was opened over the phone. The vacuum cleaner was shipped to an address in Texas. Household Bank then turned it over to their collector in Illinois. The contact there was very rude and nasty. They refused to accept our affidavit and insisted that we had to use their forms and furnish all the information they required. When we told them we would see them in court, they transferred the account to a collection agency in Colorado. When Mountain States realized it was a fraud account, they transferred it to Gulf States in Atlanta, Georgia. We still have not been notified that this account is cleared even though it no longer shows up on our credit report. Yes it is a continuing battle to ensure that the fraud account does not get recycled.
The person or persons opening these fraud accounts, to our knowledge, have not been prosecuted. We are not considered the injured party. The banks and credit card companies are considered the victims. At the time this began it was only against the law in about four states. That has now risen to about a dozen states where it is now a felony. The creditors do not want to bother with pursuing the person opening the account. They in turn will harass the true owner of the social security number to pay an account that was opened through their greed and carelessness. Even checking the most rudimentary information would expose the fraud.
We believe that the information was obtained through Air Force records. The Air Force required my wife's social security number on her ID card when she renewed it three years ago. My social security number is required in almost any transaction with the Air Force from shopping in the commissary to having clothes dry cleaned. The social security number is now used as a service number and is therefore available on any of the linked computers located anywhere within the Department of Defense. We have heard rumors of a military fraud ring operating in the Texas area. We were told that some members are now serving time in Fort Leavenworth.
We have been affected both emotionally and physically by this fraud. This ordeal has taken three years out of our lives. It has cost us over $6,000 in attorney fees. It has delayed our move to South Carolina. It is extremely time consuming, as we had to track down the creditors and establish a point of contact to send an affidavit. We learned that an affidavit sent to a creditor without a person named, will end up in the trash. There is always the feeling of waiting for another shoe to drop. We do not want the creditors for these fraud accounts to try to collect from our estate through a probate claim.
It is our feeling that there is no accountability on the part of the creditors who open these frauds accounts and then uses them to ruin the credit of an innocent person or of the credit bureaus that are supposed to verify your credit information. Much of this could be avoided through the credit bureaus by identifying the very obvious changes to the information already on record. Such thing as different addresses, different spelling of your name, different birth dates, changes in spousal names and birthdays, and often listing several current employers located in different states. A very simple check is to verify when and where the social security number was issued. In our case the social security numbers were issued before the birthdays given on the applications.
We wish to offer the following advice to anyone who becomes a victim of identity theft:
- Get copies of your credit reports. They are free in some states or if you have been denied credit.
- Inform the credit bureaus of the fraud accounts. If there are a large number of accounts, insist on being assigned one person to work with. This eliminates having to repeat the same information to every different person who happens to answer the phone.
- Don't fall for their reinvestigation promise. A reinvestigation consists of asking their customer who opened the account if the information is correct. Of course it is, they accepted the form that opened the account.
- Track down and contact the creditor listed in the credit report. Obtain the name of an individual that you can use as your contact. Send then a sworn affidavit that you are not the person opening the account. Have them submit a statement to the credit bureaus clearing you fraud account. Ask for a copy of the statement.
- Demand a copy of the application opening the account. You are entitled to it since you are the person being accused of opening the account. Do not send an affidavit until you receive a copy of the application. You can then point out the false information in the application.
- Do not accept a creditor or collection agency offer to settle the account for a reduced amount. If you do, the bad credit is now a permanent part of your credit report for up to seven years. This is a high price to pay to get rid of their nasty letters and phone calls.
- Constantly check your credit reports. Look for any accounts that do not belong to you and immediately challenge them. Pay specific attention to the "inquiry" section. This is a list of creditors checking your records for granting credit or for promotional purposes. This is usually your first clue that someone is trying to open an account in your name.
- Have the credit bureaus put a fraud alert in your report. This requires any creditor opening an account in your name to contact you and verify that you are the person making the application.
- Be prepared for a long and frustrating battle. Stand your ground and don't let them intimidate you. Point out that THEY have a problem. Use the application to point out their negligence in not properly verifying the information they accepted to open the account.
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