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

Mall Rats

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.

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.

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.

The document conjures up an image of the thief, living up there in Plano somewhere, relaxing in a stolen Wicke's recliner and watching the latest blockbusters on the stolen TV and VCR. Perhaps she is eating popcorn out of a new Sears bowl. And, just maybe, the stolen Sears underwear is riding her tired, shopped-out behind.

Wilson puts the document down and sighs. All she wants is her name back.

And one other thing:

"I want these fuckers caught."


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