An advocate for readers, a name you can trust

The honchos here at the paper say I should devote my first column to introducing myself. At the moment, there's only one thing I want anyone to know about me: I'm not Derrick Davis.

And I want this guy out of my life once and for all.

For anyone who missed the memo, identity theft remains one of the fastest-growing crimes in the United States, with about 9 million people becoming victims every year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.

A recent survey sponsored by the financial services industry found that losses related to ID theft topped $49 billion last year. The average victim pays as much as $600 to extricate him or herself from the mess.

"The question is not if you'll become a victim of identity theft," said Linda Foley, co-founder of the Identity Theft Resource Center in San Diego. "It's when."

She noted that the typical victim spends up to six months dealing with the headaches and hassles inflicted by an ID thief. And even then, your problems may not be over.

"It's the crime that keeps on giving," Foley said. "It's the never-ending story."

I can attest to that. I discovered five years ago that a Derrick C. Davis in Connecticut had been using my Social Security number to run up bills on nine different credit cards.

I also learned that a pair of Indian-owned casinos, including the sprawling Foxwoods Resort in Ledyard, Conn. -- which says it's the world's largest casino -- were alleging that Davis (using my Social Security number) had passed about $4,000 in bad checks during gambling sprees.

"He's been a customer since 1997," a Foxwoods spokesman told me when I started looking into the situation. "Not a big-time player, but a player."

Like most victims of ID theft, I couldn't get anyone in law enforcement interested in my case. Only about 1% of cases reportedly result in convictions. So I went after Davis myself.

Long story short, I compiled an extensive file of Davis' doings and whereabouts and then shared the info with a sympathetic investigator working for the U.S. Postal Service. This resulted in Davis' arrest and eventual conviction in 2003 for Social Security fraud.

Because he was in the country illegally, Davis was subsequently deported to his native Jamaica, where, in my more resentful moments, I imagine him kicking it on the beach and smirking about not having to serve a single day in prison for leaving my credit record in tatters.

And that, I hoped, was the end of it. But no. Last week, I was informed that my efforts to buy a home here in Los Angeles were on the verge of collapsing because the claims against Davis filed by the casinos are still on file somewhere. The mortgage company thus saw me as a bad bet.

I was told that if I wanted the deal to go through on schedule, and for the mountain of repair work I've got lined up to begin as planned, I'd have to pay Davis' $4,000 in casino debts.

Somehow I don't think Posh and Becks ran into this problem when they plunked down $22 million for their little Beverly Hills hideaway.

After days of frantic negotiations, all the legwork I did on my ID theft finally convinced the top execs of the mortgage company that maybe I'm not quite the credit risk that Davis' casino trespasses would indicate. The loan was approved.

But how is it that, years after Davis was convicted for stealing my identity, he's still screwing up my life? Foley, of the Identity Theft Resource Center, said this wasn't unusual.

"You think you get everything solved," she said, "and then it's like a ghost that reappears."

Maybe I'll never be rid of Davis. No one at Foxwoods returned my calls seeking an explanation for why I'm still on the hook for his gambling debts.

In future columns, I'll provide tips on how you can keep your own identity safe -- tip: Check your credit reports every few months -- as well as keep you up to speed on the latest scams making the rounds.

I'll also decry the miserable state of the U.S. healthcare system, examine the myriad ways companies nickel-and-dime their customers and ask if anyone can think of a more satanic business practice than the automated switchboard.

I grew up in Southern California but more recently called the northern part of the state my home. In its previous incarnation in the San Francisco Chronicle, this column led to laws that, among other things, prohibit the sending of California voter information abroad and require banks to wait at least three years before recycling former customers' checking account numbers.

What's this column about? It's about you. It's about survival in an increasingly consumer-unfriendly world. Your tips and observations are welcome.

So now that introductions are out of the way, let's get started.

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david.lazarus@latimes.com

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