By Amy Silverman
By Olivia LaVecchia
By Monica Alonzo and Stephen Lemons
By Chris Parker
By Michael Lacey
By Weston Phippen
In 1994, a drifter named Scott Gilbert married Bob Hartle's ailing mother. Gilbert took out a mortgage on his new wife's home, emptied her bank accounts, ran up her credit cards and bankrupted her. Then he got a driver's license in Hartle's name and moved into Hartle's good credit. Posing as Hartle, he bought a mobile home in Nevada, trucks, motorcycles, firearms. He opened charge accounts, obtained credit cards. He used Hartle's name to get jobs he couldn't otherwise, and Hartle's military record to get a mortgage ("Bob Hartle's Identity Crisis," April 24, 1997).
When Hartle learned of the deception, Gilbert had already loaded more than $100,000 onto Hartle's otherwise clean credit report.
Hartle went through hell to clear the record. No local police departments would take reports on what Hartle saw as clear-cut theft. Nor could the state attorney general, the county attorney, or the U.S. attorney's offices figure out which jurisdiction should handle the case -- or what case. Identity theft in itself was not a crime, and in the case of the fraudulently purchased goods and services, well, the institution lending the money was the victim of those crimes and it would be up to the institution, not Hartle, to file a complaint.
Hartle was bounced from office to office, arguing all the way, until he finally convinced the U.S. attorney's office to go after Gilbert, and finally convict him on a weapons charge.
It took Hartle four years and $15,000 of his own money to clear his credit, and even before he finished, he lobbied hard enough to get a state law passed in 1996, outlawing identity theft -- seven other states have since followed suit -- and a corresponding federal law in 1998.
That should have been the end of the story, but it's not. Hartle's phone still rings off the hook from other identity-theft victims frustrated by police departments telling them to take a hike.
"They're still telling people they aren't victims," Hartle says. "And the Attorney General's Office and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office is saying they are, along with the bank or the business [that suffers the actual financial loss], and the police still refuse to accept that. And as far as I'm concerned, they are breaking the law. They took an oath to enforce the laws of the State of Arizona and they're not doing that."
Just last August, for example, Pat and Jean Iovine, retirees in Surprise, returned from vacation to find that someone had had checks printed with their names and bank account on them, but someone else's address. There had been an account opened at Radio Shack in their names, a $2,200 computer purchased. Money was withdrawn from their bank account with a phony debit card. They went to the police in Surprise and were told to see the police in Phoenix and then Glendale.
"We had to go to four different precincts before anyone would listen," Pat Iovine says.
And they were told, as Iovine recalls, "You're not the victim here, Radio Shack's the victim."
Phyllis Malkiewicz, who lives in Peoria, has an almost identical story. In September, she and her husband discovered that checks in her name were being passed to buy, among other things, a $900 refrigerator, and $5,000 was withdrawn from their savings account.
"Of course, we went to the police," she says, changing her voice to mimic what they told her: "'You're not the victim. The retailers are the victims; the banks are the victims.' Meanwhile, someone's running around with ID with my name on it writing all these checks."
They got all their money back, but not until after the bank conducted a two-month investigation of the fraud.
"They say you're not the victim, but I get all these collection letters from companies for these bad checks," Malkiewicz continues. "You have to prove you're not this person."
No arrests have been made in either case.
And yet the laws are clear.
"You pass a law and you think that does it," says John Shadegg, the Arizona congressman who pushed the Identity Theft and Assumption Deterrence Act through the U.S. House of Representatives; Senator Jon Kyl introduced the same legislation in the U.S. Senate. "You take credit for passing a law and that doesn't do it."
State Representative Tom Smith, who sponsored the state law, is also well aware of the gap between having a law on the books and getting it enforced.
"Some of the surrounding communities such as Tempe, Mesa, Chandler probably are doing a better job of enforcing the law than Phoenix," he says.
It's a question of resources and money, of more serious crimes taking precedence, of traditional police officers just not getting -- or even trying to understand -- such an intangible crime as identity theft.
It's a slippery crime, because it's not just a single crime. Names and numbers may be mixed and matched -- your name on someone else's checks or credit cards. It could involve forgery, credit card fraud, bogus licenses. Someone may be assuming a false identity for reasons so benign as to fake residency to get kids into a better school district or so dangerous as completing drug deals.