Mall Rats

Thieves stole Ronnie Wilson's name, and now she's having an identity crisis

On this Thursday afternoon, Ronnie Wilson holds up the latest clue--the most recent footprint, really, left by the person or persons who got their mitts on her identity eight months ago and have been on an illegal $10,000 shopping spree ever since. It is a letter, arrived today, from Dillard's department store thanking Wilson for notifying the store of her recent change of address.

"I never had a Dillard's account," Wilson says.

She hasn't moved either, though that option is becoming increasingly attractive.

Will the fake Ronnie Wilson please stand up?
Peter Calvin
Will the fake Ronnie Wilson please stand up?

If Wilson had received this letter a year ago, it would have been a shocker, an unexpected notice that someone somewhere had obtained a credit card in her name and was using it at will. But today Wilson is not surprised.

"Every day is an adventure in my mailbox," says Wilson, who plops down a plastic file box on her apartment floor. The box is filled with strange bills, police reports, credit reports, consumer-alert brochures, fraudulent credit card applications made out in her name, and still more bills. The box lands with a thud. "This is my life now," she says. "Some people say I'm obsessed, but I'm not obsessed. I've been raped of who I am."

A freelance editor, Wilson is well aware that by using the word "rape" she risks sounding as if she's exaggerating her predicament or, at the least, whining. Nonetheless, raped is how she says she feels, and lately she's been going to great lengths to tell people about it. Just this morning, she returned to Dallas from New York, where she appeared as a guest on the Montel show. The segment, which was taped and will be broadcast at a later date, focuses on victims of identify theft.

Which is what Wilson is.

Indeed, Wilson is a victim of a crime that one Dallas County prosecutor calls the "crime du jour"--thefts carried out by crooks who know how easy it has become, thanks to the Internet and department stores' instant credit policies, to use stolen personal identification information to buy goods under someone else's name.

The thieves also know that despite new state and federal legislation making "identity theft" a felony offense, the chances of getting caught are low because police don't have the resources they need to adequately investigate the crimes, says Brian Flood, who supervises the special-crimes division of the Dallas County District Attorney's Office.

"It's really popular to go out and commit traditional crimes but do it in someone else's name so that whenever the crime is discovered, you're sending law enforcement up the wrong trail: They're tracking the wrong person or someone who doesn't exist," Flood says.

Wilson's case is a perfect example of the dilemma. Even though she has a pretty good idea who initially took her identity, the task of figuring out who is using it to finance the ongoing shopping spree is proving to be vastly more difficult.

The trouble began on March 22, Wilson's 31st birthday. That afternoon, she went to the Tom Thumb store at 7700 W. Northwest Highway and bought groceries. When she left the store, she left her wallet lying on the checkout counter. The wallet contained Wilson's driver's license, her cash card, a Citibank MasterCard, her business cards, and, perhaps most important, an SMU student identification card bearing her Social Security number.

"The irony is, I paid cash," Wilson says.

When she realized her mistake the next day, she jumped through all of the proper hoops: She called the store looking for the wallet. Then she called Citibank and notified them of her lost credit card and, later, went to her bank and canceled her cash card.

That Friday, Wilson went back to Tom Thumb, where she says she learned that the store's surveillance cameras had captured footage of an employee--the kid who had bagged her groceries--taking the wallet off the checkout counter. What's more, he apparently used Wilson's credit card to make a purchase in the store just minutes after Wilson forgot it. To her dismay, Wilson says, the store manager did not call the police to report the incident. So she did.

Although Wilson says store employees made no effort to retrieve her wallet, the store manager told police that they confronted the kid and were planning to file a police report about the use of the credit card on the following Monday, according to a Dallas police report about the incident.

Store officials declined to comment on the matter, though they did release a brief statement in which they confirmed that the suspected employee was fired and that they reached a "fair settlement" with Wilson. The officials declined to discuss the settlement, though Wilson says the store sent her a check for about $1,000 in August.

While at the store, the police took Wilson's report but did not arrest the bag boy. Instead, Wilson says, they assured her that since she had reported the incident and contacted her banks, she had little to worry about. The wallet, they told her, was probably thrown away.

Perhaps, but the personal information it contained was not discarded. Wilson figured that out some six months later when she got a copy of her credit report and discovered that, since September 7, someone had been pretending to be her.

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