GOLDEN, Colo. (CBS4) – Identity theft is the most common crime in America right now, and victims say it causes a web of finance trouble that takes years to resolve.
“I can say with confidence there is someone out there right now stealing someone’s identity,” said Troy Cooper, a senior investigator with the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Economic Crime Unit based in Golden.
Cooper says identity theft cases are particularly hard to solve. Many times there are several people working in connection to steal personal information, make fake id’s and other documents, and then use those fraudulently.
“It’s difficult because we have to get inside the organization to see how it’s organized,” Cooper explained.
Cooper says it takes surprisingly little information for thieves to build a fake identity.
With your full name, thieves can do some simple internet searches to find out more information like your birth date, address, and phone number.
“Often times, they’ll just use a combination of information from different people and put it on a driver’s license,” Cooper told CBS4.
The best protection against identity theft is prevention. Cooper recommends some simple rules people should live by:
— Keep track of your mail.
— Routinely check your credit report
— Don’t carry your check book or other personal documents with you.
— Be careful not to leave personal, financial information in your car.
“Vigilance is a form of prevention. They’re looking for someone who isn’t paying attention,” Cooper said.
Mary was paying attention. Although she thought she’d never be a victim of identity theft, she was cautious. Then one day she got a letter in the mail saying she’d bounced a check.
“I had never written the check that they said that had bounced,” Mary told CBS4.
Thieves were using her name, address, phone number, and driver’s license number to write fake checks with fake routing numbers, and fake account numbers.
“They were not stealing my money, thank goodness,” Mary said.
Court documents show that the ring leaders in Mary’s case were using the fake checks to buy items and then returning the items for cash. The never opened a line of credit in Mary’s name.
“They tried to, but they can’t do that without a valid social security number,” Mary explained.
What they did was ruin Mary’s credit rating. She got harassing calls from collectors and she had to start a paper trail for each bounced check. She says there were nearly a hundred of them. For each one she would have to fill out an affidavit that had to be signed by a notary stating that she was a victim of identity theft.
“The amount of time that I put into it, I figure I probably have 500 to 750 hours just dealing with the creditors,” Mary said.
In Mary’s case there were several victims, and police were able to trace it back to some background check forms they all filled out for the Boy Scouts.
“The information was put in a dumpster…it wasn’t shredded,” Mary said.
Police were able to bust the ring, and it resulted in charges against ten people, including Deborah Lawton who convicted of using Mary’s identity. Lawton got two years in prison and four years of probation.
“It was a big relief. It was gratifying, and satisfying that the people who did this were caught,” Mary said.
Many identity theft cases are not solved. In some cases it takes years to track down the perpetrators, so victims are left to deal with the fall out for a very long time. Cooper says that these days when they do bust an identity theft ring, they get good convictions and good sentences.
“In the end we’re looking at organized crime charges, so it’s a much more significant case,” Cooper said.
Mary is still rebuilding her credit rating, and now she says she is vigilant about her personal information.
“I don’t give out really any personal information unless I absolutely have to. And then I ask them what they’re doing with it, why they need it,” Mary said.
She feels like all too often people give out personal information about themselves without thinking about where it’s going to end up.
You can get more information about how to protect your identity, as well as a free credit report, and free shredding at the Jefferson County District Attorney’s Safety Fair. That’s Saturday, August 23 from 9am -1pm at the Jefferson County Fairgrounds.
–Written for CBSDenver.com by Special Projects Producer Libby Smith