Af­ter 15 years, my ID thief is back

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - david.lazarus@la­ Twit­ter: @David­laz

Ten years ago this week, I wrote my first col­umn for the Los An­ge­les Times. The topic was the huge mess that en­sued af­ter a guy in Con­necti­cut stole my iden­tity and ran up un­paid bills with credit card com­pa­nies and In­dian casi­nos.

I wrote about how I had to in­ves­ti­gate the case my­self — po­lice nab fewer than 5% of iden­tity thieves — and serve up my find­ings to law en­force­ment au­thor­i­ties.

This re­sulted in my ID thief, Der­rick Davis, be­ing ar­rested and con­victed for So­cial Se­cu­rity fraud. He was sub­se­quently set for de­por­ta­tion to his na­tive Ja­maica, a pros­e­cu­tor told me.

And that, I thought, was that.

Last week I got a call at home. It was for Davis. He was be­ing sought in con­nec­tion with an un­paid hos­pi­tal bill in Con­necti­cut. From just five years ago. In other words, he’s back. And just like that, the night­mare starts again.

“It’s one of the most sig­nif­i­cant prob­lems with iden­tity theft,” said Paul Stephens, di­rec­tor of pol­icy and ad­vo­cacy for San Diego’s Pri­vacy Rights Clear­ing­house. “Once your in­for­ma­tion gets out there, it can stay out there.”

It’s un­clear if Davis is once again us­ing my So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber. But the fact that his per­sonal trou-

bles are still be­ing linked to me il­lus­trates the nearim­pos­si­bil­ity of fully cor­rect­ing er­ro­neous on­line in­for­ma­tion — which I spent many hours try­ing to do the last time I dealt with this prob­lem.

Yet even now, a debt col­lec­tor search­ing pub­lic and pri­vate data­bases for Davis came up with my home num­ber, rais­ing the pos­si­bil­ity that my credit score could be in danger if any ac­tion were to be taken against Davis, such as a lien on his prop­erty.

“In­for­ma­tion gets sold, ex­changed and stored in many, many data­bases,” Stephens said. “You just can’t find all the places it’s kept.”

A re­searcher at the news­pa­per and I scoured a bunch of data­bases for list­ings re­lated to my So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber. Af­ter all this time, it still pro­duced hits for Davis as well as for cor­rup­tions of our two names, such as Der­rick Lazarus. A search for Davis’ wife, Char­maine, listed me as a rel­a­tive.

My orig­i­nal in­ves­ti­ga­tion into Davis’ ac­tiv­i­ties, 15 years ago, re­vealed that he ap­par­ently had pulled my So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber out of the air. The first three dig­its of peo­ple’s num­bers re­late to their place of birth, and I was born in Con­necti­cut.

It was Davis’ bad luck to have in­ad­ver­tently picked the So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber of an in­ves­tiga­tive reporter.

It didn’t seem as if he was out to scam me. He was us­ing my num­ber to hold var­i­ous jobs. When I found him, he was work­ing for a ca­ter­ing com­pany.

But he was also de­cid­edly cav­a­lier with his spend­ing. Davis owed nearly $4,000 to a pair of In­dian casi­nos and had out­stand­ing bills for nine credit cards.

And now this lat­est sit­u­a­tion. I re­ceived a call from a Las Ve­gas in­ves­ti­ga­tor try­ing to track down Davis on be­half of a debt col­lec­tor. The in­ves­ti­ga­tor re­fused to pro­vide me with any in­for­ma­tion, ex­cept that the debt was for “a cou­ple of thou­sand dol­lars” re­lated to a 2012 hos­pi­tal visit.

My home num­ber, the in­ves­ti­ga­tor said, came up in a search for Davis’ pos­si­ble where­abouts.

Two can play at this game. My own search for Davis last week re­vealed that the state of Con­necti­cut went af­ter him and his wife in 2014 for $5,338 in un­paid taxes.

The In­ter­nal Rev­enue Ser­vice put them in the cross-hairs in 2009 for al­most $15,000 in un­paid fed­eral taxes.

In 2013, Char­maine Davis was sen­tenced in New Haven fed­eral court to 24 months in prison for mort­gage fraud. She also was fined $6,000 and or­dered to for­feit $39,434.

I spent days try­ing to piece to­gether a trail to Davis’ cur­rent lo­ca­tion. Most of my ef­forts hit dead ends — dis­con­nected num­bers, former ad­dresses.

Then, on Fri­day, a woman with a Ja­maican ac­cent an­swered the phone. Af­ter all these years, I’d found Davis’ wife.

“I’m sorry to know this is hap­pen­ing to you,” she said of my lat­est en­counter with a debt col­lec­tor.

Char­maine Davis con­firmed that she and her hus­band still re­side in the New Haven area, but she said they’re to­gether only “on and off.” She wouldn’t give me his num­ber but agreed to pass mine along.

She ac­knowl­edged that about 15 years ago Davis “came in the coun­try and made up a So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber so he could get a job. It was your num­ber.”

She said he “got that straight­ened out” and now has his own So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber. She de­clined to com­ment on Davis’ cur­rent im­mi­gra­tion sta­tus.

Davis “has never been in the hos­pi­tal,” she said, so she doesn’t know why a debt col­lec­tor is seek­ing him in con­nec­tion with a med­i­cal bill.

She wished me luck in ex­tri­cat­ing my­self from this sit­u­a­tion.

So what do you do when an ID thief reap­pears? Pri­vacy ex­perts say the first thing is to ac­cept that you can never make the prob­lem com­pletely go away.

“This is one of those su­per-scary crimes,” said Eric Gold­man, co-di­rec­tor of Santa Clara Univer­sity’s High Tech Law In­sti­tute. “It can per­sist for decades af­ter the crime oc­curred.”

He said there’s not much use in play­ing of­fense — that is, try­ing to clean up the thou­sands of data­bases con­tain­ing con­sumer in­for­ma­tion. At the very least, though, it’s im­por­tant to make sure your record is spot­less with the three lead­ing credit-reporting agencies: Ex­pe­rian, Equifax and Tran­sUnion.

Be­yond that, all vic­tims of ID theft should en­roll in a credit-mon­i­tor­ing pro­gram to keep tabs on their credit files, par­tic­u­larly if, as in my case, your So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber is known to some­one else.

There are var­i­ous ser­vices avail­able that will mon­i­tor all three credit agencies at a cost of roughly $20 a month.

Pro tip: If you’re a South­ern Cal­i­for­nia AAA mem­ber, you’re en­ti­tled to free mon­i­tor­ing of your Ex­pe­rian credit file, with ad­di­tional safe­guards avail­able for $8.95 monthly. Con­tact the auto club.

If you re­ally want to cir­cle your wag­ons, con­tact each credit agency and have a freeze put on your files. This means no one can un­lock them with­out a code num­ber, which should pre­vent any­one from, say, ap­ply­ing for a credit card in your name.

Typ­i­cally, you have to pay $10 ev­ery time you freeze and un­lock your files.

I told Gold­man the story of how Davis had resur­faced in my life. “That has to be both frus­trat­ing and dis­con­cert­ing,” he re­sponded. It is. Af­ter I spoke with his wife, Davis didn’t get in touch. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll keep his dis­tance.

Elise Amen­dola As­so­ci­ated Press

DER­RICK DAVIS used David Lazarus’ So­cial Se­cu­rity num­ber for work and racked up credit card debt.

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