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Standing face to face with her thief

Salesclerk Michelle McCambridge was the victim of identity theft. Shortly after she became aware of the situation, the woman who had claimed to be the 23-year-old was at her cash register.

September 22, 2009|Kim Murphy

TUKWILA, WASH. — Was it fate that brought the thief directly to her that day? Hubris? Malice, perhaps?

It was impossible to know. Yet there was Michelle McCambridge, a 23-year-old JCPenney salesclerk, looking at the woman who not long before had stolen thousands of dollars worth of jewelry, video game consoles and other merchandise by claiming to be Michelle McCambridge.

As their eyes locked, McCambridge felt herself go numb, a mix of adrenaline and anger. The woman in front of her stood impassively.

"Oh my god, I can't believe it's her, I can't believe she's there," McCambridge recalled thinking. "I remember wanting to go and knock her out myself."

The odds of an identity thief trying to pull a scam that involves one of her own victims must be a million to one, federal authorities said. In this case, McCambridge not only clued into the doppelganger, but her quick response helped topple an identity theft ring that had targeted more than 40 victims around Washington state.

"These are some of the most difficult cases to work because they're so . . . time-consuming. But when Michelle recognized her and pulled the [store surveillance] video, it gave us a fighting chance," said Joseph Velling, the special agent for the Social Security Administration who led the investigation.

Identity theft is one of the fastest-growing frauds. Last year, the Federal Trade Commission received 313,982 complaints. But law enforcement authorities said that an estimated 65% of identity theft victims, probably mindful of the dismal odds of catching the culprit, never even call police.

McCambridge's ordeal started in January when the sociology student got a call from her mother asking about several credit card bills that had arrived in the mail. McCambridge didn't know what her mother was talking about. The charges came from stores at which McCambridge had never opened an account.

"She said, 'You have a bill from Sears here.' She opened it and it was for several thousand dollars' worth of jewelry.

"Then she called me back a few minutes later. 'What about Kohl's?' And then there was JCPenney, Toys R Us, Babies R Us. Those were all on the same day. I didn't get a statement from them. It was like, 'Congratulations, here's your new card.' "

Someone who produced a driver's license with McCambridge's name on it and who knew her Social Security number had taken out lines of credit at all the stores within just a day or two in December.

There were four $500 gift cards purchased at JCPenney and others from Home Depot -- about $13,000 worth of gift cards and merchandise in all.

McCambridge immediately called the retailers to report the fraud. She asked the JCPenney security department to pull the surveillance recordings for the date that the identity thief had come in to apply for credit. She made similar requests to the other stores the next day.

When Velling, a friend of her father, took a look at the videos, he noticed they had one person in common: a young black woman with distinctive, heavy-framed rectangular eyeglasses, a high forehead, a small waist and large hips.

McCambridge studied the still photographs Velling had compiled. Who could it be? Did she know her? How could this woman have gotten her name, Social Security number and address?

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Before the advent of digital video, stores routinely taped over their surveillance footage every 30 days. Even now, victims rarely call retailers to request the images; neither do police, who often must try to trace a single case of credit fraud that is rooted in a large ring operating in several cities.

That task has become even more difficult as identity thieves become more sophisticated. When banks and department stores began requiring home phone numbers to activate cards, for example, crooks started tapping into victims' phone lines to make the calls.

"The credit card companies have eliminated a lot of the ways that [security] can be compromised," Velling said. "But there's a huge problem now, and that's instant credit. You get in-store credit and you've defeated all the . . . security. But it means you've got to move fast, because the credit card's going to get mailed to the victim, and they're going to know about it in three or four days."

The woman standing at McCambridge's cash register a few weeks after the surveillance photos had been obtained was applying for instant credit to purchase several garments under a different name.

"She said, 'I want to apply for one of your JCPenney cards. How does that work, and what do you need?' " McCambridge recalled.

And that struck her as strange. Most of the time it's the clerk pushing instant credit on the customer, not the other way around.

"I said, 'We just need your ID and for you to fill out the application.' I went to grab it and, at that point, I really looked at her. I was thinking, 'You have exactly the kind of black-frame glasses as the woman in the picture . . . the exact same high forehead.'

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