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YOUR MONEY | FINANCIAL FITNESS / KATHY M. KRISTOF

It's Known as Identity Fraud, but by Any Name It's an Ugly Crime

August 25, 1996|KATHY M. KRISTOF

Lesley Wenger brushed off the first inkling of credit fraud as a bizarre marketing stunt.

A credit manager from an electronics store called to verify her credit application.

But Wenger had never been in the store and had never applied for credit. When the store representative continued to press, asking for her Social Security number and other identifying information, she just thought it was an aggressive marketing tactic to get her to apply for a card she didn't want.

"I told him to forget it. I wasn't in the store. I didn't apply for credit. And I wasn't giving out personal information," she says. "The nerve of these guys," she clucked to her husband as she hung up. They promptly forgot about it.

In retrospect, Wenger has realized the call was a red flag signaling something called identity fraud, a rapidly growing type of crime that involves somebody's obtaining your credit information and using it to get a host of high-limit credit cards. The store was actually calling to verify information on an application from someone attempting to use her name to get credit.

Credit cards or other credit accounts obtained this way are used liberally, then abandoned. The victims are left to fend off collection agents and patch up their bloodied credit records.

In Wenger's case, repairing the damage took three years and cost her the chance to buy what she describes as her dream home. The Los Angeles interpreter who has since moved to San Antonio, now says she has a lesson to share with other victimized consumers: You can take on the big credit reporting bureaus and you can win.

Wenger says credit reporting companies, in particular Trans Union of Chicago, failed to adequately investigate her claims of fraud. Earlier this month, a Los Angeles jury agreed and awarded her $200,000 in compensatory damages.

The legal victory notwithstanding, Wenger's story should make consumers uneasy. Hundreds or maybe thousands of consumers are fighting similar battles, and very little has changed to assure them of a happy ending.

Wenger's woes began in 1993. She's not sure exactly when or how, but somehow, someone got her Social Security number. Wenger, then 51, had a modest amount of credit and a perfect payment record. That made her an ideal target.

Despite the fact that the criminal frequently misspelled her name, changed addresses five times in three months and was the wrong sex, he was able to get 15 credit cards in her name from retailers across the country--Los Angeles, Atlanta, Arkansas, Ohio. He ran up $15,000 in debt, defaulted and pitched the cards before law enforcement even knew a crime had been committed.

Wenger first learned of it when collection agencies began to send her letters and call her at all hours of the day and night. Wenger called the police, credit agencies and retailers.

"Day after day, I was dealing with people [collection agents and retailers] who insisted that I was a crook and a deadbeat and taking advantage of them," Wenger said. "I can tell you, people are always afraid to deal with the IRS, but I've dealt with them before and had no trouble. They're human beings. The IRS is nothing compared to this."

Part of Wenger's woes stemmed from the fact that she objected to part of the standard procedure that credit reporting companies use to deal with consumer claims of fraud.

Standard procedure for a consumer who suspects fraud is to call the credit reporting companies, which then send copies of that person's credit report. The consumer examines the report, lists the accounts that don't belong to him or her, and either calls or mails the information back.

The credit reporting company then contacts the retailers and credit card issuers involved and suggests that the consumer do the same. The retailers who issued credit to the crook then send forms to the consumer that the consumer is supposed to complete, notarize and mail back.

In Wenger's case, however, there were 15 retailers. That would have meant 15 notary fees. And all the forms required her to give out her Social Security number and other identifying information to retailers she was unfamiliar with.

"Since I didn't know where the number had been stolen from before, I didn't want to give them more information so that somebody might co-opt that information too," she says. "I said I would not fill out a form that put me at greater risk. I never doubted for a minute that filling out the forms was the wrong thing to do."

Credit reporting firms confirm that this procedure remains in place today.

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