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$30,000 in one week

Thieves go on shopping spree with reporter's identity

(Editor's note: Associated Press reporter Nedra Pickler was the victim of identity theft, a growing crime. In just a week, thieves charged $30,000 of merchandise on credit cards obtained using her stolen identity.)

By Nedra Pickler

Associated Press

WASHINGTON -- Whoever pretended to be me when filling out the Peebles department store credit application had nice penmanship. There's no sign of nervousness in the neat cursive signature.

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Maybe the person knew there was little reason to worry -- few people who steal identities ever get caught.

Though I have no clue who the thief is -- or the identities of others who subsequently assumed my name -- they know my basic personal information: current and former addresses, birth date and Social Security number. That was all they needed to obtain credit cards and charge more than $30,000 worth of merchandise in my name.

In one week.

According to the General Accounting Office, identity theft has grown rapidly, although there is no firm estimate of how many Americans have been victimized. Visa and Mastercard have reported that overall fraud losses rose from about $700 million in 1996 to $1 billion in 2000.

It's fairly simple to open a credit card account in another person's name. Identity thieves often get information from stolen wallets or by taking people's mail or sifting through their trash for old bills and other documents.

I have no idea where they got mine -- I noticed nothing missing -- but there are many possible sources.

In the month before the theft occurred, I gave my Social Security number, address and birth date to set up a gym membership, to submit an apartment rental application and to get treatment for a broken finger. The information also could have been taken by one of the dozens, if not hundreds, of strangers who have access to my employment or financial records through my bank, my investments or my legitimate creditors.

I was lucky to find out about the theft early. An alert fraud investigator at Neiman Marcus became suspicious when someone opened an account there on Christmas Eve and immediately charged $9,000.

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The investigator checked my credit file and found applications had been made the same week at 10 other stores in three states and my hometown, Washington, D.C.

As I was out buying Christmas presents that I had saved for all year, other people were buying armloads of goods in my name. In some cases, they used a computer to print fake checks in my name.

At Peebles, they picked up children's casual wear and pajamas. Their purchases also included a television and video games from Montgomery Ward, an anniversary band and diamond earrings from Zales and a fur coat from Macy's.

Because the charges were made in several locations in Maryland, Virginia, Georgia and the District of Columbia, it's likely my information was sold to others, who then opened credit accounts in my name.

The Neiman Marcus investigator showed rare concern, taking the time to track me down at work, then tell me the list of stores and credit bureaus I needed to contact to stop the unauthorized charges. I immediately placed an alert on my credit file with the credit bureaus. No new accounts could be opened unless I approved them from my home phone number.

The alert stopped at least three additional credit card applications made over the Internet. But three months later, an impostor was able to get a card from a clothing store and charge $1,381 worth of merchandise, despite the warning on my file.

My case never attracted a serious investigation from the seven police departments I contacted or even the stores, which generally pass on the loss to the banks issuing the credit cards. The one detective who returned my call expressed frustration that the crime is growing so fast.

Although I never had to pay for any of the charges, clearing my name became my second job for months. For each fraudulent application, I had to track down the creditor and make my way through a voice mail maze to an actual human to explain.

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Then I would be transferred to an investigator or voice mail for the fraud department, then I would have to explain the situation again to someone who could close the account.

Each creditor sent me a separate affidavit, usually several pages long, that I had to fill out and get notarized.

I also had to determine which local police department had jurisdiction over the stores where the theft occurred and file a report. I also reported the case to the Federal Trade Commission and the Secret Service, which investigates identity theft in the District of Columbia.

Now, more than a year after the first theft occurred, my credit report finally appears clean. But I haven't applied for any new credit cards or loans.

It used to be thieves broke into homes and took whatever they could as quickly as they could. Good neighbors or a good watch dog could stop them.

But identity thieves can shop where they want, when they want and for what they want. And there is nothing neighbors and dogs can do about that.

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