- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 24, 2006

I have a warning for my fellow 26.5 million veterans whose personal information, including Social Security numbers and birthdates, was stolen from the home of a Department of Veterans Affairs employee: If someone uses that information to steal your identity, you could be in for the one of the most maddening, frustrating and time-consuming ordeals of your lives.

I know. It happened to me. I’m a victim of identity theft. Unfortunately, unlike most other victims, we victims of identity theft have no one to sue.

In my case I was hit, not by an organized ring, but by an opportunistic sneak thief. I’m not absolutely sure, but I think I know when it began — when we sold our house and held a yard sale—and who did it.

He is unknown to me personally. I call him Freddy the Freeloader, after the character in Red Skelton’s old comedy sketches. Freddy simply got hold of my Social Security number — probably from papers I foolishly included in a snowblower I sold at the yard sale. Armed with that and nothing more than my name he went to town, ringing up credit charges of tens of thousands of dollars.

Freddy started in October. I learned that later. The first I knew of it was the following June, when I received a nasty phone call from a department store telling me I was w-a-a-a-y overdue on my charge card payments and had better pony up.

Since I had never had a charge card with that store, I said it must be a mistake. Furthermore, as my wife and I have never, ever been late on a credit payment, I resented their implication. This is a priggish attitude, maybe, but also a fact.

The woman on the phone was disinclined to believe me. She dipped into my credit bureau files on her computer (they can do that, you know, which is a whole ‘nother issue) and said, in effect, “Oh yeah? Then what’s with all these other overdue credit card payments?” And she rattled off a half-dozen.

When I explained, my heart sinking, that I had never held or applied for any of those cards, she grew only slightly less skeptical. After all, they’ve heard all this before, usually from credit card deadbeats with sincere voices.

Anyway, she allowed I might be the victim of credit fraud and that I had better contact the three main credit bureaus. Pronto.

At first, in my truculent masculine way, I refused to do so. I wasn’t the person who did the crime, why should I have to take the time and trouble to clean up after it?

Interesting point here: I am not, in fact, the real victim of this crime, and so I cannot file a complaint with law enforcement agencies, even though my credit is wrecked. The law says the real victims are the credit-granting agencies, and they are reluctant to complain.

But my wife is made of sterner stuff, especially when it comes to her husband’s dilatoriness. She said, You’d better hop to it, Buster, and get this straightened out.

So I hopped. What I found was appalling: Freddy had run up more than a dozen fraudulent credit accounts under my name and Social Security number. He apparently was having a high old time at stores of every stripe — department, jewelry, convenience — you name it.

It took months, and countless hours on the phone and writing letters, to straighten out. I had to contact each credit-granting agency individually and fill out — and have notarized—affidavits stating I was not the person who applied for the credit. Eventually I got all the fraudulent accounts off my credit bureau reports.

The three credit bureaus and the credit-card companies were all eager and efficient in helping me dig out from under, as well they should have been. If only they were a tad less eager to grant credit and considerably more efficient about doing applicant checks when they do grant credit.

But they aren’t. They’d rather make that impulse sale — even though it might be to a credit- and/or-identity thief — and worry about paying for the costs down the road. And no wonder. As it is now, many of those costs are borne by the credit-fraud victims in the form of time and effort spent cleaning up after their profligacy.

The easy availability of credit gets Americans into this mess. That is, easily available to other Americans. No longer to me. To protect myself, my credit bureau files now have a lock on them. I can barely get credit in my own name.

And, of course, easily available to Freddy. The nutsy fact he only has to find another name and Social Security number and he’s in the easy-credit business again.

Because, from all I have learned, the credit-granting agencies are extremely unlikely to go after Freddy. It costs too much to prosecute. They’ll eat their losses and — appropriate metaphor — pass them on to me and you in higher costs.

Meanwhile, look out for Freddy. It is not out of the realm of possibility that at this moment some innocent, trusting chump is booking a Caribbean vacation he won’t know about until a stern voice on the phone six months from now asks him when he intends to start paying for it.

Roger K. Miller, a newspaperman for many years, is a freelance writer and reviewer who checks his credit reports at least once a year.

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