Mall Rats

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

That day, someone applied for credit cards at Lowe's, Sears, and Office Max via the Internet. The requests were rejected, but this thief was persistent. Three days later, a woman went to a Sears store in Arlington and applied for credit in person, using Wilson's stolen driver's license and Social Security number.

After the woman filled out the application, the Sears employee informed her that Wilson already had a Sears card and happily rattled off the account number. The thief took the information and promptly logged $675.55 in purchases. In subsequent weeks, the thief repeatedly shopped at a Sears store in Plano and rang up more than $2,000 in additional purchases.

Among other things, the thief bought a rice cooker, a Farber baking sheet, a flatware and dinnerware set, a Disney watch, and a tiny mountain of bras and underwear. Over in electronics, she nabbed a 27-inch RCA television and a Sony VCR, according to a copy of the bill that Wilson later received.

But this thief is no dummy. She moved on to cooler waters, establishing credit at Target, Montgomery Ward's, Dillard's, and Mervyn's.

On September 22, the thief showed up at a Wicke's Furniture and applied for a credit card. By this time, Wilson had already ensured that a "fraud alert" was attached to her credit history kept by the three major reporting agencies, but that wasn't enough to stop Wicke's from giving the thief instant store credit. Four days later, the thief had bought nearly $3,000 worth of furniture during several visits to Wicke's stores in Arlington and Plano.

Wilson says that when she discovered the charges, she called Wicke's to ask them why they didn't attempt to verify any of the information the thief provide on the store's credit application before they issued the credit card.

"They told me, 'Ma'am, we had the customer in the store,'" Wilson says.

The manager at the Wicke's store where the credit card was issued declined to discuss the subject and, instead, referred calls to the company's Chicago headquarters. No one responded to messages left there.

The real reason, Wilson suspects, is that the store didn't want to spoil a good sale, even if it meant doing business with a crook. Although that scenario sounds absurd, it is remarkably common. In these types of cases, police consider the stores to be the primary "victim" because they are the ones that suffer the losses. Although more conservative credit policies might stem the flow of illegal purchases, many stores aren't motivated to adopt them because their insurance policies cover the losses. If crime causes the stores' insurance rates to go up, they just pass the cost on to the customers in the form of higher prices.

"It's a choice of underwriting. How willing are you to slow down the transaction vs. [being] able to charge off the loss," says Assistant District Attorney Flood. "Unfortunately for the consumer, he gets hit with the loss, and the merchant walks on down the road."

Because Wilson quickly reported the theft of her identity to authorities and, more important, kept all of the paperwork to prove it, she will not be liable to the stores for the purchases, which, added together, amount to just under $10,000 and counting. Still, Wilson says she's been victimized plenty: The task of clearing her name has consumed countless hours of her time and energy.

"It's taken over my life," Wilson says. "To me, it's the most violent nonviolent crime there is. Your identity is who you are."

No arrests have been made in Wilson's case, but Dallas police spokesman Ron Waldrop says officers are investigating the case.

Wilson suspects that the authorities haven't taken her case seriously, but they say catching and prosecuting these types of thieves is extremely difficult even though, as Wilson's case demonstrates, they leave behind an extensive paper trial. Although the police can determine what was stolen and when, the records don't prove who the thief is; that task requires extensive investigations. To make matters worse, Flood says, the crimes can involve more than one thief, because the stolen identification could be sold or traded to any number of potential suspects.

"We have the tools; the problem is, we don't have the manpower to do it. There aren't enough detectives to track down the Internet records, which are all over the nation, and interview witnesses," Flood says.

A new state law makes the crime of identity theft a state jail felony offense punishable by up to two years' imprisonment and $10,000 in fines. Flood says that since the law took effect on September 1, 1999, his division has filed 25 cases. Although that number is low, Flood expects these types of cases to "explode" in the coming months, in part because of the new law, but also because this type of crime is on the rise.

In the meantime, Wilson can't stop thinking about who the thieves are. Unless the police make a break in the case, she'll never know. For now, all she can do is look at the clues they've left behind and guess.

Wilson picks up a copy of the last bill she received. It's from the Blockbuster store in Plano, and it says Wilson owes them $500.71 for five unreturned movies, including Drowning Mona and Mystery Alaska.

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