Ted Wern was in two different places at the same time one night in May 2000. He was in his apartment in Chicago, fresh out of law school and studying for the bar exam. He was also in Mansfield, Ohio, drunk on his ass and joyriding through the outskirts of town. The police pulled him over and discovered he was driving without a license, but he sweet-talked them into letting him drive home.
The Chicago Ted Wern was a victim of identity theft, and as he'd already discovered, it doesn't take much to steal an identity--just a name, date of birth, and social security number. You can find the first two anywhere. Getting a social security number is trickier, though you only have to be willing to dig through a few Dumpsters or break into a company's employee records. Then you can open a few credit-card accounts in the person's name, file a change-of-address form so he won't get the bills, and let the good times roll. That's why identity theft is America's fastest growing white-collar crime.
Victims like Wern usually don't hear about the shopping sprees they're financing until 10 to 20 fraudulent credit-card accounts have been opened in their name and they're thousands of dollars in debt. By then financial institutions are convinced they're deadbeats.
Recovering your identity and good name is an exercise in frustration. The thieves need next to nothing to steal an identity, but the victims need reams of documents--police reports, signed and notarized affidavits, multiple photo IDs--to prove their identity's been stolen. And even if the thieves are stopped it can take years to clear debts and credit reports. On average it costs $1,200 and 80 hours to recover an identity.
Many victims reach the point where they want to give up. But if they let their credit go to hell, their lives will soon follow. Bad credit, no matter how accumulated, can prevent people from getting something as basic as phone service. You want to mortgage a house or secure a loan to start a small business? No chance.
Yet once you're victimized, don't expect much help from law enforcement. With 750,000 new identity thefts in the country each year, local police departments are overwhelmed. Their job is complicated by jurisdictional problems, as when someone who stole an identity in one state commits financial crimes in another. "Law enforcement doesn't have the resources or the manpower to investigate every report," says Rolando Berrelez, assistant director of the Federal Trade Commission's midwest regional office, which maintains an identity-theft database. "In many cases the victims have to deal with the consequences on their own."
Sitting in his 55th-floor Loop office, Ted Wern doesn't look like a victim. The 27-year-old attorney is six foot five and oozes confidence.
He wasn't so confident in the spring of 1998, when he first discovered that his identity had been stolen. He was in his first year of law school, studying abroad at Oxford University, and got a call from his credit-card company's fraud department. "They told me that someone was spending thousands of dollars on accounts opened in my name," he says. "But they knew it wasn't me because I was in England and the charges were made in Ohio."
Wern believes the thief had stolen mail from his family's home in Columbus, Ohio. "He found my name, my social security number, and my date of birth," he says. "Using that information, as well as a fake ID card, he departed on a crime and spending spree that was unimaginable to me at the time. I still can't quite put it into perspective."
Wern learned a lot about his thief from what the guy would buy. For one thing, he was fixated on household cleaning appliances. "He really liked vacuum cleaners," says Wern. "He must have bought 20 of them over the years." Wern remembers that during his third year of law school--back in Columbus, at Ohio State University--he was sitting in his tiny apartment watching late-night infomercials and staring at his cruddy carpet. "An ad came on for one of those really fancy carpet steamers that can suck all the stains out of your carpets in ten minutes, but I could never afford one," he says. "That week I got a call from a creditor, and what did this guy buy? Three top-of-the-line carpet steamers. I just about cried."
The guy liked living well. "He incurred up to $50,000 in debt that I knew about," Wern says. "He had telephone accounts, cable bills, and utility accounts. He was able to board airline flights using tickets issued in my name and purchased with credit cards issued in my name. He was able to rent vehicles. He was able to enjoy all the financial freedoms that we all take for granted. This guy was living quite luxuriously in my name, and I was still a poor student in law school. It's devastating to know that there's someone out there living a much richer lifestyle than you are on your name and your credit."
Wern soon had a bad record with multiple institutions--the man who'd stolen his identity had opened more than 20 credit-card accounts in his name. To prove the charges weren't his and to erase the accounts, Wern made hundreds of phone calls to creditors. He followed those up with letters and notarized affidavits. Sometimes he even went to businesses where the thief had bought something to find out whatever he could about the guy.
He was piling up expenses and losing plenty of hours to the pursuit each week, and he was doing it alone. But he doesn't think he had a choice. "Once [identity theft] is committed, it is your burden as a victim to clear it up," he says. "You cannot ask a police officer or a lawyer to go in and convince creditors that you are who you say you are. It is something only you can do."
He had gone to the police--after all, a crime had been committed. He'd also contacted the Federal Trade Commission, the U.S. Post Office mail-fraud bureau, and the Secret Service. But identity theft is a difficult crime to solve. "There's no paper trail with identity theft," says Wern. "It's a telephone trail. It's an Internet trail. And it's just hard to track these people down."
Investigators from the agencies were helpful, he says, but swamped. "You send them everything you have," he says, "and it is very hard from their perspective, sitting in an office far away, to really approach it from a granular level and talk to the creditors and track the person down. I ultimately came to the decision that this was the kind of problem that I could better deal with myself."
Eventually he became a master at erasing bad credit on his own. He could usually have a fraudulent account cleared from his credit report within a week of finding out about it, though he still had to write follow-up letters. Dealing with creditors became part of his daily routine. "I got used to it," he says. "It was like a disability--it slowed me down but didn't stop me."
It helped that he was a lawyer--he'd graduated in 2000 and started at a Loop law firm the same year. As he points out, "It's my job to write forceful letters, navigate corporate bureaucracies, and do follow-up work." Many victims say the tedious hours on the phone with automated answering services and obstinate employees is the most frustrating aspect of identity theft. For Wern it was just unpaid overtime.
But his skill at clearing his name had an unexpected downside. "The better I got and the quicker I cleared my record, the easier it was for him to get more credit," he says, "because I had then cleared my record, my name was clear, and he could just spend more freely. It was a vicious circle."
Eventually Wern realized that the only way to recover his identity was to stop the criminal. But he knew he couldn't do that without help from the police.
Then in the summer of 2000 Wern tried to buy a car, and a background check of his license turned up outstanding warrants for his arrest in Ohio. His dark half, he learned, was wanted for registration violations, unpaid speeding tickets, running red lights, parking in handicapped spaces, and driving drunk. "I was forced to go to court and appear as Ted Wern under these traffic violations and convince numerous judges that these crimes were not committed by me," says Wern, who now knew that the guy was living in Mansfield, Ohio. "One of those occasions was a DUI, and he was able to convince the officers [to let him go] by giving all of my information, which he had memorized so well, and claiming that he had lost his driver's license. He was basically able to walk scot-free away from it."
The police in Mansfield were embarrassed when the real Ted Wern turned up in court and showed how often they'd let the imposter walk away. "After that event, both the Mansfield division of the Ohio state patrol and the local Mansfield police department became a lot more vigilant in tracking this guy down," says Wern. "They really focused their energies on catching him, because he basically crossed the line."
Police quickly discovered that the thief was having the products he ordered in Wern's name shipped directly to his home address. They tracked him there, and last January Terre Stevens, who looked nothing like Wern, was sentenced to six months in an Ohio state penitentiary and four years of probation.
Wern went to Stevens's sentencing and was relieved to see him in a prison jumpsuit being led away in handcuffs. "I was certainly one of the more fortunate victims," he said afterward. "My perpetrator was caught. He is now in jail. He is off the streets." Few victims of identity theft have that satisfaction. According to the Cook County state's attorney's office, only about one in ten reported identity-theft cases in Cook County were prosecuted in 2000.
The three-and-a-half-year ordeal had cost Wern 300 hours of work and $1,200 in expenses. Yet he says, "In some ways, having my identity stolen gave me opportunities I wouldn't have otherwise had."
On April 16 he appeared on C-SPAN while testifying before a Senate subcommittee that was considering a bill that would make getting a driver's license more difficult, especially for people using stolen identities. Senator Dick Durbin, chairman of the subcommittee, led the hearing and asked Wern to share his experiences.
"What I would like to emphasize here is that this is an extremely difficult situation to remedy after it has happened to you," Wern said in his five minutes of testimony. "I wish there was a more rigorous system that would prevent somebody from getting that information, from using it freely, from getting a fake identification card. I hope this panel and this system can do everything in its power to make this all stop."
Wern now devotes the hours he used to spend haggling on the phone with creditors to helping other victims. He's a volunteer for the Identity Theft Resource Center, a nonprofit organization based in San Diego, and leads the center's support group for Illinois victims. He walks them through the basic steps of clearing their credit reports and encouraging the police to investigate the crime and track down the criminals.
For the past eight months he's been enjoying what he calls a "return to normal life." As far as he knows, his record has been wiped clean of Stevens's crimes, and he can use credit cards, order cable TV, and buy cars without being called a deadbeat or a crook. "I'm the only Ted Wern these days," he says. "But to tell you the truth, I'm not counting on that to last."