ID theft

The swiping of personal information
leaves victims with ruined credit and years
of grief trying to clear the mess

How to protect your identity
Rebuilding can take years

By Debra Barayuga

Burglars are no longer after the usual loot. Television sets, stereo equipment and jewelry may be useful for quick money, but they aren't as lucrative as credit card numbers, birth dates, bank statements and other personal information.

Dien Shearer, a detective in the Honolulu Police Department's Financial Fraud Unit, said police are seeing cases in which burglars ignore electronic equipment in favor of pieces of paper that will yield bigger returns.

The thieves steal mail, checks, and bank and credit card statements so they can assume the identities of their victims. Some don't bother stealing the paperwork at all; they simply jot down the information, which will allow them to obtain loans or purchase goods on the Internet, Shearer said.

Visitors have been easy targets. Thieves break into their cars, leaving valuables undisturbed but stealing the numbers without signs that a crime has been committed, Shearer said. The victims have no clue until they receive the bills or financial statements, which arrive a month or so later.

When they finally realize they've been ripped off, it's too late, Shearer said. And the victims' financial situation is left in shambles.

They are left with unpaid bills, ruined credit -- and months or even years of grief while they try to clear the records.

"It's devastating," Shearer said, adding that he'd rather be a victim of physical assault than identity theft. Physical injuries heal faster, while the damage of identity theft can take months, even years to resolve, he said.

Identify theft isn't a new crime. It has been around in one form or another for many years, but the number of thefts has been increasing in recent years, Shearer said.

In the last 10 months, there have been 3,000 such cases assigned to detectives in the police Financial Fraud Unit, said Lt. John Cheong, who heads the unit.

Ten years ago when Detective Martha Fontana-Kwon joined the Forgery Unit, the bulk of cases involved people cashing stolen checks or using stolen credit cards at a store to purchase merchandise, she said.

Today, the unit investigates more complex theft cases. They find thieves printing their own checks using stolen account numbers, or using stolen credit cards to open Internet or cellular phone accounts and purchasing goods and services online.

Thieves use their victims' names, addresses, dates of birth, Social Security numbers and other personal information to open up new credit card, bank, utility or cellular phone accounts, or obtain loans and other lines of credit.

Victims usually don't learn about the thefts until they get the bills. Some learn about the thefts even later because clever thieves change the mailing addresses so the victims don't receive the statements.

The thieves often commit multiple thefts with one identity, racking up large debts, Cheong said.

"The culprit is not going to stop at $100," Cheong said. "If they get your ID, name and info, they'll do as many (transactions) as they can."

Of the hundreds of cases Shearer has investigated in the past year, about 60 percent were preventable, he said. While no one deserves or asks to become a victim, many times the victims could have taken precautions.

He has seen dozens of cases where thieves break into cars and find checkbooks and credit cards in the glove compartments. Victims make it easy for the thieves by writing their PIN numbers on their credit or bank cards, while others throw away documents containing personal information, such as unsolicited credit card offers.

Consumers, merchants and banking institutions need to do more to safeguard personal information, Shearer said.

Alan Sklar, founder and president of Creative Services, a Mansfield, Mass., company that provides background checks and security consultation, agrees.

Sklar attributes the increase of identity thefts to the free flow of information in the electronic age and calls for businesses to safeguard consumers' personal information more aggressively.

"We want to make sure companies are taking on this responsibility, not just consumers," he said, adding that businesses have the "moral and ethical responsibility" to protect the information.

When companies hire employees, they need to make sure they're hiring people without a criminal history. "If you have an insider in the company with access to privileged information and (is) selling it outside, that's a funnel of information that's going out and thieves are using that information," Sklar said.

The state Legislature last year passed Hawaii's first law addressing identity theft. It calls for stiffer penalties than crimes of traditional thefts.

"The concept is if you steal something from someone, that is bad enough, but if you steal and you steal someone's identity as well, there should be a harsher penalty," said Deputy Attorney General Kurt Spohn, who wrote the bill.

A federal statute amended in 2000 also addresses the growing problem of the use of false identity information on the Internet, said Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Seabright. Depending on how the crime is committed, violators face three to 25 years in federal prison if convicted.


Keeping tight control
of private data is key

By Debra Barayuga

Call him paranoid. Dien Shearer doesn't care.

He logs every ATM withdrawal and credit card transaction he makes in a notebook and compares the list to his monthly statements. He carries only those credit cards that contain his photograph.

He doesn't use checks, and shreds every piece of paper containing personal information before tossing it into the trash. He no longer puts mail in his curbside mailbox and opened a post office box instead.

Shearer, one of 10 detectives in the Honolulu Police Department's Financial Fraud Unit, is doing all he can to avoid becoming a victim of identity theft, which law enforcement officials say has become the nation's fastest growing crime.

He shares the following tips from Honolulu police and the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit program based in San Diego, Calif., that was set up to support victims of identity theft and provide resources for consumers:

>> Don't leave checkbooks, credit cards, credit card receipts or anything containing personal information in your car.

>> Shred documents with personal information -- checks, bank statements, credit card offers -- before discarding them.

>> Don't leave outgoing mail in your curbside mailbox. The red flag is a beacon for thieves. Drop it off instead at the post office or an official mail receptacle.

>> Pick up your mail as soon as it's delivered. If you're missing monthly statements or bills, call the companies to check.

>> Obtain a copy of your credit report every year to check for any unauthorized requests for credit. Guard that report because it contains your date of birth and Social Security number as well as any and all account numbers you have ever had.

>> Never give out personal information over the telephone. Thieves have transmitters to eavesdrop on conversations.

>> Don't input personal information in your computer. Be wary about purchasing goods and services on the Internet.

>> Scrutinize credit card statements carefully for unauthorized charges or transactions. Do the same for bank statements.

>> Limit the amount of credit cards you carry or own. Do not write or keep the PIN on the card or in your wallet. Don't use the last four digits of your Social Security number, mother's maiden name, birthday or current address numbers as PINs.

>> Reduce the number of preapproved credit card offers you receive by calling 888-5OPT OUT. (They will ask for your Social Security number.)

>> If you've become a victim of identity theft, close all accounts that have been tampered with or were unauthorized. File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft Hotline toll-free at 877-IDTHEFT.

>> Keep a record of all credit card numbers and telephone numbers to call immediately in case your wallet or purse is stolen.

Also call the three major credit card bureaus to place a fraud alert on your account and to include a statement asking creditors to call you before opening accounts or changing existing accounts. They are:

>> Experian (formerly TRW): 888-397-3742

>> Equifax: 800-685-1111

>> Transunion: 800-916-8800

Also check out the site run by the Federal Trade Commission at


Victim struggles
2 years after ID theft

By Debra Barayuga

Build good credit, her dad always said; it's the one thing no one can take away from you.

Her father was wrong. A thief took away her good credit just like that.

Jean A., a 59-year-old Pacific Heights resident who asks that her full name not be used for fear she will be victimized further, said she is still living a financial nightmare two years after someone stole her identity and ruined her credit history.

In October 2000, someone stole her Social Security card, credit cards and birth certificate from her home, Jean said. She was in the midst of renovating her home and didn't realize those documents were missing until she received a big bill from Sears a few months later.

The thief apparently used her credit card to buy a computer, jewelry and a DVD player, racking up nearly $7,000 in charges. Sears told her that the person who used her charge card had shown a driver's license as identification.

Within a matter of months, the thief was able to open a checking account and more than 15 credit accounts on the Internet. The thief bought more than $25,000 worth of goods online from Banana Republic, Home Depot, CompUSA, Circuit City and other establishments.

Lianne Nakaji, 39, an admitted drug addict, later was arrested and convicted on 13 forgery, second-degree theft and other charges in connection with Jean's case.

Police said they found Nakaji with ID cards, checks and charge cards for several other people. In Nakaji's hotel room, police also seized computer software, a trimmer, laminator and other equipment they believe were used to produce counterfeit checks and IDs.

Nakaji was sentenced in August to five years in prison, the maximum term.

Jean learned that Nakaji had obtained a duplicate driver's license in Jean's name even though the two are 20 years apart in age and share no physical resemblance whatsoever.

The nightmare continues even after Nakaji was caught and sentenced. Two years afterward, Jean still hasn't been able to clear her name.

The whole experience has affected her health and changed her personality and faith in others, Jean said. She has gone through periods of depression, moodiness and uncontrollable crying.

"I felt as though my life was out of control and I could do nothing," she told the court at Nakaji's sentencing.

She has spent countless hours in the past two years on the telephone with creditors and financial institutions trying to explain purchases she never made or checks she never wrote. She has had to repeat her story over and over again to sometimes unsympathetic creditors.

Making the required calls were emotionally draining, humiliating and embarrassing, she said in a recent interview. She lost her patience many times.

"I would be sarcastic and angry, totally out of character," she said.

The questions they asked made her feel as though she was a freeloader and liar.

"At one point, I couldn't talk to anybody else; I just let it go," she said.

The worst experience came when she and her husband were denied a mortgage because of her ruined credit. The couple had to apply for a mortgage using only her husband's name.

She recently applied for credit at a major department store where she had held a charge account for 15 years. The response letter made her feel so humiliated she couldn't even show it to her husband.

The letter said something to the effect of how dare she apply for credit when she couldn't even pay her bills, Jean said.

"I felt so small," she said. "I felt like calling to say, 'It wasn't me,' but I was too embarrassed to call."

When the nightmare will end, she doesn't know. Jean still comes across charges made in her name by somebody else and sent to addresses elsewhere.

Jean has since purchased a shredder to cut up bills, credit card offers and correspondence containing her personal information. She retrieves her mail as soon as it's delivered. She picks up her checks at the bank rather than have them mailed to her and had her Social Security number removed from her checks.

She makes sure she secures her house even when she's home and is less trusting, Jean said.

"I feel like I'm not as happy-go-lucky," she said. "I'm more suspicious of people. I don't like that. I wish I could be the way I was before."

Honolulu Police Department

E-mail to City Desk


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