By TOM ZELLER Jr.
Paul Fairchild, a 34-year-old Web developer in Edmond, Okla., has never spent $500 on fine tobacco. He has never slaked a shoe fetish with $1,500 charges at Manolo Blahnik and Neiman Marcus, nor has he ever bought diamonds online, furs in SoHo, or anything at e-Luxury.com. He has never owned an apartment building in Brooklyn, and he has never peddled flesh.
Over the last two years, however, his credit report has suggested otherwise.
In retelling his ordeal with identity theft, Mr. Fairchild has developed the acid sarcasm and droll nonchalance of a standup comic - a defense mechanism, his wife, Rachel, says, that belies two years of hell.
"Once this happens, you can't believe how deep the rabbit hole goes," Mr. Fairchild said.
Indeed, in a year of prominent cases of stolen or lost consumer information -- from the hacking of university computers and the disappearance of backup tapes at Citigroup, to fraudulent downloads from the databases of companies like ChoicePoint and LexisNexis -- the rabbit hole seems to be getting deeper.
About 10 million Americans fall victim each year to identity theft, according to the Federal Trade Commission. And in about a third of those cases, victims see far more than their existing credit card accounts tapped. Their private information is used by thieves to open new accounts, secure loans and otherwise lead parallel and often luxurious lives.
For victims like Mr. Fairchild -- and two others who recounted their troubles and shared their sometimes vast paper trails -- it can be an unnerving, protracted whodunit, with collection agents demanding payment for cars they have never driven, credit card accounts they never opened, loans they never obtained, and myriad other debts accrued by shadowy versions of themselves.
Prosecutions are rare, and police investigations -- when they do happen -- are time-consuming, costly and easily stymied. A 2003 study by the Gartner Inc. consulting firm suggested that an identity thief had about a 1 in 700 chance of getting caught.
"It's a crime in which you can get a lot of money, and have a very low probability of ever getting caught," Mari J. Frank, a lawyer and author of several books on identity theft, said in an interview. "Criminals are now saying, Why am I using a gun?"
Just how many of the millions of new cases each year stem from the widely reported cracks in the nation's electronic data troves is impossible to know. A study by Javelin Strategy and Research indicated that the most frequently reported source of stolen information, at least among those who knew how it happened, was decidedly low-tech: a lost or stolen wallet or checkbook. And some experts have suggested that consumers are much more likely to fall victim to a rogue employee -- at a doctor's office, say, or a collection agency -- than to a gang of hackers infiltrating a database.
But however their information is obtained, victims are still left with the unsettling realization that the keys to their inner lives as consumers, as taxpayers, as patients, as drivers and as homeowners have been picked from their pockets and distributed among thieves.
"Once it happens, you can never be certain that it won't happen again," said Beth Givens, the director of the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse, a consumer advocacy group. "You can never let your guard down."
Mr. Fairchild, Kenneth Wasserman and Toshka Cargill -- each from different parts of the country and from varying economic backgrounds -- know precisely what Ms. Givens means. Their experiences with identity theft follow.
Also I want to mention a relative of mine who has had identity theft problems in recent months. He says the bank has been on his case about a 'house he owns' (he owns no such thing) which has a mortgage payment overdue. He told them several times he was not the owner (as a result of ID theft someone bought it in _his_ name) and telling the bank is like talking to a brick wall. I suggested to him since it is 'your building' (as per the bank statement) just tell them to go ahead and foreclose on it; take it back. (wink!) It should be interesting if bank decides to do that. PAT]