Kansas case puts face on ‘total identity theft’

Roxana Hegeman

October 23, 20

WICHITA, Kan. (AP) — When Candida L. Gutierrez’s identity was stolen, the thief didn’t limit herself to opening fraudulent credit and bank accounts. She assumed Gutierrez’s persona completely, using it to get a job, a driver’s license, a mortgage and even medical care for the birth of two children.

All the while, the crook claimed the real Gutierrez was the one who had stolen her identity. The women’s unusual tug-of-war puts a face on “total identity theft,” a brazen form of the crime in which con artists go beyond financial fraud to assume many other aspects of another person’s life.

The scheme has been linked to illegal immigrants who use stolen Social Security numbers to get paid at their jobs, and authorities fear the problem could soon grow to ensnare more unsuspecting Americans.

“When she claimed my identity and I claimed it back, she was informed that I was claiming it too,” said Gutierrez, a 31-year-old Houston elementary school teacher. “She knew I was aware and that I was trying to fight, and yet she would keep fighting. It is not like she realized and she stopped. No, she kept going, and she kept going harder.”

A 32-year-old illegal immigrant named Benita Cardona-Gonzalez is accused of using Gutierrez’s identity during a 10-year period when she worked at a Topeka company that packages refrigerated foods.

For years, large numbers of illegal immigrants have filled out payroll forms using their real names but stolen Social Security numbers. However, as electronic employment verification systems such as E-Verify become more common, the use of fake numbers is increasingly difficult. Now prosecutors worry that more people will try to fool the systems by assuming full identities rather than stealing the numbers alone.

For victims, total identity theft can also have serious health consequences if electronic medical records linked to Social Security numbers get mixed up, putting at risk the accuracy of important patient information such as blood types or life-threatening allergies.

Federal Trade Commission statistics show that Americans reported more than 279,000 instances of identity theft in 2011, up from 251,100 a year earlier. While it is unclear how many of those cases involve total identity theft, one possible indicator is the number of identity theft complaints that involve more than one type of identity theft — 13 percent last year, compared with 12 percent a year earlier.

Nationwide, employment-related fraud accounted for 8 percent of identity theft complaints last year. But in states with large immigrant populations, employment-related identity fraud was much higher: 25 percent in Arizona, 15 percent in Texas, 16 percent in New Mexico, 12 percent in California.

Prosecutors say that the longer a person uses someone else’s identity, the more confident the thief becomes using that identity for purposes other than just working.

Once they have become established in a community, identity thieves don’t want to live in the shadows and they seek a normal life like everybody else. That’s when they take the next step and get a driver’s license, a home loan and health insurance.

“And so that is a natural progression, and that is what we are seeing,” said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson, who is prosecuting the case against Gutierrez’s alleged impostor.

Gutierrez first learned her identity had been hijacked when she was turned down for a mortgage more than a decade ago. Now each year she trudges to the Social Security Administration with her birth certificate, driver’s license, passport and even school yearbooks to prove her identity and clear her employment record.

She spends hours on the phone with creditors and credit bureaus, fills out affidavits and has yet to clean up her credit history. Her tax records are a mess. She even once phoned the impostor’s Kansas employer in a futile effort to find some relief.

Both women claimed they were identity theft victims and sought to get new Social Security numbers. The Social Security Administration turned down the request from Gutierrez, instead issuing a new number to the woman impersonating her. And in another ironic twist, Gutierrez was forced to file her federal income tax forms using a special identification number usually reserved for illegal immigrants.

“It is such a horrible nightmare,” Gutierrez said. “You get really angry, and then you start realizing anger is not going to help. … But when you have so much on your plate and you keep such a busy life, it is really such a super big inconvenience. You have to find the time for someone who is abusing you.”

When Gutierrez recently got married, her husband began researching identity theft on the Internet and stumbled across identity theft cases filed against other illegal immigrants working at Reser’s Fine Foods, the same manufacturer where Cardona-Gonzalez worked. He contacted federal authorities in Kansas and asked them to investigate the employee working there who had stolen his wife’s identity.

The alleged impostor was arrested in August, and her fingerprints confirmed that immigration agents had encountered Cardona-Gonzalez in 1996 in Harlingen, Texas, and sent her back to Mexico.

Cardona-Gonzalez did not respond to a letter sent to her at the Butler County jail, where she is awaiting trial on charges of aggravated identity theft, misuse of a Social Security number and production of a false document.

Her attorney, Matthew Works, did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. Court filings indicate the two sides are negotiating a plea agreement.

Citing privacy issues, the Social Security Administration declined to discuss the Gutierrez case. Reser’s Fine Foods did not return a message left at its Topeka plant.

Anderson expects more cases of total identity theft “because we all know what is going on out there — which is thousands and thousands of people who are working illegally in the United States under false identities, mostly of U.S. citizens, and very little is being done about it. But we are doing something about it, one case at a time.”

New consumer help with credit reports

Kathleen Pender
October 22, 2012

Starting this week, consumers who have trouble getting mistakes in their credit reports corrected or have other problems with credit bureaus can file a complaint with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

The CFPB will help consumers resolve issues with credit reporting agencies, also known as credit bureaus or consumer reporting agencies. These include the big three – Equifax, Experian and TransUnion – and some smaller companies.

The CFPB says it will help consumers resolve issues such as incorrect information on a credit report, improper use of a credit report, inability to get a credit report or credit score, and problems with credit monitoring or identity protection services.

To preserve consumers’ rights under the Fair Credit Reporting Act, they should file a complaint with the credit bureau first and get a response before filing one with the CFPB.

The bureau gained authority on Sept. 30 to supervise consumer reporting agencies with more than $7 million a year in revenues. This includes about 30 companies that account for 94 percent of the industry.

This is the first time a federal agency has been able to provide individual assistance to consumers with credit bureau problems. Previously, the Federal Trade Commission had jurisdiction over the Fair Credit Reporting Act and could file lawsuits or other enforcement actions against credit bureaus that violated the law.

But it did not supervise credit bureaus – or have the ability to examine their procedures and write regulations. The CFPB does have that authority and shares enforcement of the act with the FTC.

“We think it’s the level of regulation the credit bureaus always should have had, because they are so vital to the economic lives of Americans,” says Chi Chi Wu, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center.

To submit a complaint, consumers can:

— File online at consumerfinance.gov/Complaint

— Call (855) 411-2372 toll free

— Fax a letter to (855) 237-2392

— Mail a letter to: Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, P.O. Box 4503, Iowa City, IA 52244

When a consumer disputes information in a credit report – such as a late payment or bankruptcy – the lender that provided the information and the credit bureau are required to conduct a “reasonable investigation” to determine its accuracy and, if it’s wrong, correct it.

The credit bureau typically “boils the complaint down to a code, beams the code to the creditor and they do a mindless data comparison. The courts have said you cannot do just a mindless comparison of data; you have to do more. But they continue to do a mindless comparison,” says Evan Hendricks, author of “Credit Scores and Credit Reports.”

“Clearly, the presence of another cop on the beat can only help. It’s possible and even likely that if someone complains to the CFPB (the consumer) might get action,” Hendricks adds.

The bureau previously began taking complaints about mortgages, bank accounts, consumer loans and private student loans. From July 21, 2011, through Sept. 30 of this year, it received roughly 79,200 gripes about these products.

When it gets a complaint, the bureau makes sure the consumer is a customer of the company. It then forwards the complaint to the company, which has 15 days to make a “substantive response” to the bureau. Companies generally are expected to close complaints within 60 days.

The bureau says it will “prioritize for individual investigation” complaints that are not closed in a timely manner and resolutions that the consumer disputes.

The bureau says 82 percent of complaints received as of Sept. 30 have been sent to companies for review and response, and of those, companies have responded to about 94 percent.

Eminent domain: Is the idea of using eminent domain to seize underwater mortgages losing steam?

A consortium in San Bernardino County that was the first to publicly consider the idea was supposed to meet Thursday, possibly to review and maybe even issue requests for proposals. But it canceled the meeting and is not scheduled to meet again until Jan. 24.

The Homeownership Protection Program Joint Powers Authority – formed by the San Bernardino County and the cities of Fontana and Ontario – canceled its meeting because it could not get a quorum. “It became apparent last week that enough members had scheduling problems,” says David Wert, a spokesman for the county.

The authority was formed to publicly consider a program sponsored by San Francisco’s Mortgage Resolution Partners. The original plan called for having local governments use eminent domain to seize underwater but performing mortgages out of private-label securities. The city would pay fair market value, then refinance the mortgages at the home’s current market value. Mortgage Resolution would collect a fee and find private investors to fund the purchase of the mortgages.

Since then, other groups have approached the authority with ways to help underwater homeowners, some of which involved eminent domain.

There was no agenda for this week’s meeting, but the only thing the authority could have done was review a draft request for proposal and at most, issue the request to all interested groups, Wert says.

The authority’s chairman – San Bernardino County chief executive Greg Devereaux – could schedule a meeting before the group’s next quarterly meeting in January. He did not return my call, and Wert could not say if that’s likely.

“It’s a bit unusual not to get a quorum for a scheduled meeting, but it highlights the difficulty of moving forward with any eminent domain program,” says Tom Deutsch, executive director of the American Securitization Forum, one of many financial groups opposing the plan.

Other cities – including Oakland and Berkeley – have expressed interest in the idea, but none is as far along as San Bernardino.

Graham Williams, chief executive of Mortgage Resolution Partners, says he is “not discouraged” by the meeting’s cancellation. “These things happen,” he says. “We are continuing conversations.”