Creditors harass them for purchases they never made. Police arrest them for crimes they didn't commit. And banks refuse them loans for credit problems they never caused.
These people are victims of identity fraud, a growing crime that is difficult to prosecute, according to a new survey released Monday by the California Public Interest Research Group and the Privacy Rights Industry Council.
Identity fraud criminals steal people's names, numbers and addresses to set up charge accounts, rent apartments or even commit crimes in the names of their victims.
Although victims suffer ruined credit histories and sometimes humiliation, they frequently turn to law enforcement only to find authorities stretched to the limit fighting assaults, robbery and murder.
The survey showed that three of every four respondents said local police were either not helpful or very slow to act. About 60% said credit bureaus, department stores or banks failed to help them solve the problem.
In announcing the results of the survey, the group called for state and federal legislation to boost law enforcement efforts, provide consumers with free credit reports each year, forbid the sale of Social Security numbers and force the credit industry to provide better protection.
The survey, which canvassed 66 victims of identity theft in California, found that the average amount of fraudulent charges against their accounts totaled $18,000, with some reaching $200,000.
Federal statistics show that the number of cases has grown to more than 500,000 in 1997 from about 35,000 in 1992, said Janine Benner, an official of the public interest group. "It's the fastest-growing white-collar crime," said Thomas Papageorge, head deputy district attorney in charge of consumer protection in Los Angeles County. Papageorge did not have any figures on the number of identify fraud defendants prosecuted and convicted.
Representatives of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and the district attorney's office said the crime was not a felony until last year. Those found guilty now face up to three years in prison.
Lt. Jack Jordan, head of a four-person team in the Sheriff's Department that focuses on identification fraud, said lack of resources is a major problem because identity fraud is so complex and difficult to prove. He said his agency needs at least four more detectives and a sergeant.
In 1999, the Sheriff's Department got 928 reports of identify fraud, up 42% from the previous year, said Det. Joseph Dulla, one of the members of Jordan's team. He estimates the number will grow by about one third this year.
Dulla said improving enforcement will require greater coordination between law enforcement, government agencies and the credit industry. He said the average identity fraud case requires about 60 hours of investigation. More complex cases, he said, require "hundreds, even thousands of hours." He and Jordan did not have any arrest figures available.
One victim who identified herself as Robin said she has been battling for two years against a man who is still using her name, address and date of birth to open up credit accounts and steal her mail. She said credit card companies haven't been able to stop him.
She said law enforcement officers sometimes don't even consider people like her a victim, because the credit card companies don't charge the victim for fraudulent purchase.
But authorities "don't see their credit history ruined," she said. "They're not dealing with debt collectors for delinquent bills for charges not personally made . . . or feeling aggravated, frustrated and stalked."
She said one detective asked her "how he should explain to someone who has lost $50,000 why police are spending limited resources on crimes like mine."
Such attitudes tell identity thieves that this kind of crime does pay, she said.
"ID theft is on the rise," she added, "because no one is doing anything to stop it."