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Consumer Confidential: Stolen ID keeps making trouble

By David Lazarus, Los Angeles Times –

The letter from debt collector Resurgent Capital Services arrived at my home the other day. Enclosed was a bill for $2,852.56, originally run up in the 1990s on a Citibank credit card.

The name on the account: Derrick Davis. That would be the same Derrick Davis who stole my identity about 15 years ago.

The same Derrick Davis whom I tracked down in Connecticut nearly a decade ago and handed over to law enforcement. The same Derrick Davis who was found guilty of Social Security fraud and deported to his native Jamaica.

And here I am again, cleaning up his mess.

Or trying to.

Some readers tell me how impressed they are with my ability to resolve consumer disputes and untangle seemingly hopeless situations. I wish I were as good as they think, at least when it comes to acting on my own behalf.

But even consumer advocates can find themselves caught in Kafkaesque corporate Catch-22s that defy logic and reason.

After the letter from the debt collector arrived, I did what I would have advised anyone to do: I immediately called the company to explain that they’ve got the wrong guy.

The first service rep I spoke with requested my Social Security number. I said no. I gave her the last four digits of my Social Security number and the account number from her firm’s letter to Davis.

We had to go back and forth for a bit, but she finally accepted that even though my address and Social Security number are connected to the account, I’m not Davis. I offered to send in a letter attesting to the fact that the $2,852.56 debt isn’t mine.

“That won’t change anything,” the rep answered. “You need to send in an affidavit from the Federal Trade Commission.”

Let me say right here what an enormous hassle ID theft can be. After I first discovered that Davis was using my Social Security number to run up bills with credit-card issuers and Indian casinos, I had to spend many hours contacting businesses and financial institutions in an effort to clean up my credit file.

According to the California Office of Privacy Protection, nearly 12 million U.S. adults were victims of ID theft last year. Related losses ran as high as $18 billion. The average victim spent 12 hours clearing his or her name.

That seems on the low side. A 2007 report from the FTC said it can take as much as 130 hours to resolve ID theft problems. That’s closer to my experience.

Every time I think I’m finally rid of Davis, he pops up again in the form of some outstanding bill that’s made its way into a debt collector’s clutches. And each collector has its own rules for closing files.

So I got off the phone with Resurgent Capital Services and went to the FTC’s website. Sure enough, they have an affidavit you can fill out, but it includes your Social Security and driver’s license numbers.

Call me old-fashioned, but that’s not information I like sharing with anyone, especially some debt collector I’ve never heard of before.

I called the company back and got on the line with a different rep. She too said I had to send in the affidavit.

“It’s the FTC’s rule,” she explained.

No, it isn’t, I countered. The top of the FTC affidavit says clearly that it’s “a voluntary form” that can be used for helping resolve ID-theft issues.

It’s not the FTC’s rule. It’s the debt collector’s. And by demanding that people submit their Social Security and driver’s license numbers to challenge fraudulent claims, they’ve created an unreasonable barrier to eliminating debt.

Moreover, I pointed out, California law says a consumer can’t be sued for any credit-card debt older than four years. In Connecticut, the statute of limitations is six years.

On top of that, federal law says a creditor — including debt collectors — can’t muck up anyone’s credit score until a disputed debt is verified to be legitimate. I told the service rep I was hereby disputing the debt.

Even though I was growing increasingly flustered, I tried to remain calm and polite as I said all this. Ask my colleagues at the Los Angeles Times. They had to sit through the whole thing.

“Well,” the rep replied, “the rules are the rules. If you don’t send in the affidavit, we won’t close the file and you might keep receiving letters and phone calls.”

Can they do that?

Nope, said Jeff Hagen, a Los Angeles lawyer who specializes in consumer-debt issues.

“They can keep a file open as long as they want,” he told me. “But they can’t sue you, they can’t adversely report you to the credit agencies, and they can’t bug you. That’s the law.”

So am I off the hook? Hard to say. I’ll keep a close watch on my credit files to make sure that Resurgent doesn’t cause any mischief. If it does, I’ll have to once again jump through the time-consuming hoops of the credit-reporting agencies.

And I may have to spend some money getting a lawyer like Hagen to send a cease-and-desist letter to the debt collector telling them to back off.

Will I see Derrick Davis again? I wish I could say no.

But I’m not that optimistic.

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