By CHRIS WELSCH
Minneapolis-St. Paul Star Tribune
June 21, 2005
That's when the Customs and Border Patrol officer ran her name through the computer and broke the bad news. "You're going to need to come with me," he said.
In a holding room, customs officers told Patton she was wanted for larceny in Ohio. "I said I'd never even been to Ohio," Patton recalled.
It took about 45 minutes to untangle the truth; her identity had been stolen and used to commit a crime. Patton was released but not in time to catch her flight home. Instead, she had to spend a night in the Miami airport waiting lounge, angry and humiliated.
It's a different twist on the growing problem of identity theft. The increased sophistication of criminal databases means that crimes committed anywhere - and sometimes years ago - are popping up with more frequency during I.D. checks.
For travelers like Patton and other unsuspecting victims of identity theft, that can be a rude awakening.
"It can happen when you're traveling home from overseas, during a traffic stop, or even visiting a secure location, like a tour of the White House," said Joanna Crane, head of the Federal Trade Commission's identity theft program.
Identity theft is a label that covers a variety of crimes.
Typically, someone steals Social Security numbers, credit cards or other identification and uses the information to make fraudulent charges or withdrawals. But in some cases, the identity thief commits other crimes - anything from drug dealing to large-scale fraud - leaving the innocent person's name on the arrest warrant.
"Identity theft is so rampant that this is a huge problem," said Bill Anthony, a spokesman for the Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) in Washington, D.C. "You get pulled out of the line, maybe put under arrest, all because someone stole your name and did something awful."
In Patton's case, someone stole her purse in 1989 and used her identification when arrested for stealing from a department store in Ohio. The offender fled, leaving Patton vulnerable to arrest.
Aviva Litner, an expert on identity theft and fraud, said she feels sorry for Patton: "Tell her she's not alone. There are at least a million other people in her shoes right now."
In a 2003 federal study, 9.9 million Americans said they'd been a victim of identity theft in 2002, said Crane of the FTC. Most of those people had been victimized financially; the thieves charged up credit cards or took out fraudulent loans. Four percent of those people had a more serious problem: Crimes had been committed in their names, leaving them with criminal records and warrants pending.
"Four percent may not sound like a lot, but that's 400,000 people in one year," Crane said.
Litner, who works for a corporate research firm called the Gartner Group, said that discovering your identity has been stolen is just the beginning of what can be a very difficult situation.
"The problem with this kind of identity theft is that you're guilty until proven innocent," she said. "You have to show that you're not the one they're looking for, and there's nobody you can go to to say 'Help!' You're at the beginning of a long nightmare."
Litner said that Congress and some state governments are working on simplifying remedies for identity theft, but for now, the victim has to do all the work of contacting courts, banks, credit-card companies, credit bureaus and government agencies to try to set the record straight. Even then, erroneous reports can live on, causing problems.
"Once you're in the criminal activity databases, it's hard to get out," said Crane of the FTC. "If a crime has been committed in your name, police will be reluctant to remove it from the file. All they can do is label it John or Jane Doe, and that doesn't help catch the real criminal." In other words, the false identity of the criminal might be one of the few pieces of evidence.
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