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.
But because the crime is so far-reaching in its nature, it crosses many jurisdictions, not just from city to city and state to state but from agency to agency as well, and few law enforcement officers want to deal with the boundary disputes. But the fact is that the crime can be prosecuted from where the victim is as well as where the crime took place.
Law enforcement officers tend to be more comfortable with physical evidence. As Gail Thackeray of the Arizona Attorney General's Office explains it, when someone stands in Phoenix and shoots across the city line to hit someone in Scottsdale, the police have no problem with the case. The police from either city can pursue the case.
"When you get into the white collar areas, somehow they get confused about that," she says. "The police don't understand that to mean if checks are bouncing in Lake Havasu with the victim here in Phoenix, parts of that crime could be prosecuted in Phoenix. Our argument as lawyers is that identity theft occurs, one, where any fraud is happening, and two, where the victim is, because the victim is the one suffering the harm of the crime. That's where the creditors are calling. That's where the rude mail is coming, and that's where the actual trauma is occurring. I don't think the banks are all that upset if they lose two hundred bucks."
When the crime crosses state lines, it's even more troublesome, that case where your name is appearing on charge accounts in New Hampshire, say. It's a federal crime, but federal law enforcement agencies are unlikely to step in unless it's worth their while, to break up an identity-theft ring, for example, or to pursue criminals stealing tens of thousands, not hundreds. You need some police agency to at least write up a report, however, to clear your credit or collect insurance, but which one is willing to take the report? Such credit blemishes can stand in the way of getting a mortgage or a car loan.
Shadegg, faced with such complaints, set up a "task force" of state and federal agencies to explore such issues and educate police departments on identity-theft law.
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"Even though the state law had been in effect for a number of years and the federal law had been in place for six months or more, Bob Hartle and some of these victims were having the same problem they were having in the past: They walk into a police department and the police would say, 'Nah, if you can't show me actual use of credit cards so I've got credit card fraud or if you can't show me the cashed checks, well, that's not a crime.' We've made it a crime to steal someone's identity even before they use that to gain financial profit."
Some cases do, in fact, get investigated and brought to court. Since 1996, 362 identity-theft cases have been submitted to the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, of which 113 went to court, resulting in 96 convictions.
Meanwhile, Bob Hartle has cleared up his own credit problems, but identity theft remains his obsession. Though he still works the factory job he's had for years, he's counseled nearly 600 victims of the crime, many of them referred to him by Shadegg and Smith or even by state and county prosecutors, because Hartle knows better how to lead them through the hoops they have to jump through. He's set up a Web site, www.idscams.com. He's prepared fight-back kits, which he sells for $5, the cost of printing them. In February, he'll teach a course on guarding against identity theft at South Mountain Community College. He dogs reporters.
"Now there is a law," he says, "and they're still giving excuses."