Bob Hartle's Identity Crisis

A con man stole his good name and good credit; the law wouldn't help him get it back

As of this writing, Hartle has not completely cleared up his credit report. All during his fight, he found that if he contested charges on the report, they would be immediately removed--and then after 30 days and a cursory investigation, they would be put right back on.

More than three years after he first discovered Gilbert's masquerade, he still has not been able to convince a mortgage company that he did not buy a trailer home in Nevada. Even though an ATF investigator wrote to the mortgage company after Gilbert's federal conviction and told them that Gilbert had been impersonating Hartle, the mortgage company responded by recommending that Hartle attend credit counseling. At last report, the federal investigators were trying to obtain the original loan application and submit it to handwriting analysis.

Hartle has also made a personal mission out of fighting stolen-identity crimes. In April 1996, Governor Fife Symington signed "the Hartle bill," which had been proposed by Tom Smith to make it a felony to appropriate names, birthdates or social security numbers of another person "for any unlawful purpose or to cause financial loss to the other person."

In late March of this year, Senator Jon Kyl of Arizona introduced the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act of 1997, making it a federal felony to use another identity for deceitful purposes, punishable by up to 15 years in prison.

None of which guarantees that any law enforcement agency will pursue the crime.

While attempting to clear up Hartle's mortgage problems, an Arizona Department of Banking employee named David Sprehe had his briefcase stolen out of the trunk of his car.

"My life was in that briefcase," Sprehe says. His credit cards and checkbook were gone, and he turned to Hartle for advice on how to set his records straight. Then he went to the Phoenix Police Department.

"The quote that was given to me was that I was not a victim," Sprehe says. "It was a victimless crime. I wasn't threatened. There was no harm to me."

Hartle has since assembled a list of nonvictims: the man who had his identity assumed by a deadbeat dad escaping child-support payments; the man who had his identity taken by a shadow who rang up $23,000 of credit in two weeks, and so on.

Essentially, it's always open season for identity fraud. And as assistant U.S. attorney Dan Drake points out, Gilbert's mistake was to assume the identity of a living person who had enough connections and enough smarts to figure out who was ripping him off. He could easily have assumed a fictitious name, used it up and then moved on and started over as someone else.

Because the law enforcement agencies are overwhelmed with more immediate, more violent or more easily investigated crimes, the new laws won't necessarily be enforced.

"To some extent, where you end up is a prioritization," says Drake. "There are limited resources . . ."

As for Hartle's case, Drake continues, "All that means is, go to a senator and complain, and then we end up being driven in the cases we prosecute based on other factors."

Politics, in other words, as opposed to the usual priorities toward prosecuting violence and large-scale fraud.

Meaning that even if you have an open-and-shut case, you still may not get anything done about it.

Hartle remains furious.
"They just flat out give up and refuse to do anything," Hartle says. "Unlike other victims, I had all the evidence in my hand and presented it to them and they refused to take it. That's the part that really ticked me off.

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