To Catch an Identity Thief

Karen Lodrick ordered a latte at Starbucks while waiting nervously for the bank on San Francisco’s Market Street to open.She had been anxious and distracted of late but couldn’t help noticing the scruffy-looking pair standing next to her: a tall man wearing a navy baseball jacket and a large woman in jeans and Gucci glasses, carrying a brown suede coat and a Prada purse. The woman looked vaguely familiar.

Identity TheftPHOTOGRAPHED BY ERIK BUTLERWhen Karen Lodrick's identity was stolen she decided to fight back.
 That coat. A cold tingle of fear ran through Karen as she took it all in. The distinctive faux-fur trim along its edges looked as unkempt as the woman who held it. And then — bingo — she knew. Karen’s ID had been stolen five months before. Her bank account had been emptied, and her life sent reeling out of control. The coat she was looking at was the same one she’d seen in the bank surveillance tape, worn by the woman who’d stolen Karen’s ID.

Karen followed the pair onto the patio and watched as they settled at a round table under a burgundy window awning. She called 911, asked that a police officer meet her, then settled at the next table, watching and waiting on this morning in April 2007.

Just the day before, Karen’s bank had called after closing hours to tell her that she’d left her driver’s license at a branch on Market and Church streets. But Karen had never been to that branch. And her real driver’s license was still in her wallet.

The con artist must have come back to retrieve the phony license.

A cell call from her friend Ed Fuentes interrupted her thoughts. She walked toward the hedges that bordered the Starbucks patio, out of earshot of the pair, and told him her suspicions.

The large woman and her companion stole glances at Karen, looking increasingly nervous. Then they got up from the table and separated. The man turned south. The woman headed north.

“Ed, I’ve got to go,” she told her friend. “I’ve got to follow her.”

“Don’t do anything crazy, Karen,” said Fuentes. “She could have a gun.”

“I’ve got to do it.” She feared that if she didn’t act, the identity thief would disappear, along with any hope of ending her bad dream. The chase was on.

For five months, the thief had dipped into Karen’s accounts like they were her own private piggy bank. She scammed thousands of dollars more, using credit cards she opened in Karen’s name. The banks were unable to stop her. The police could do nothing. Creditors demanded payment for the thief’s transactions. Karen closed her accounts, only to have the criminal crack open the new ones she’d opened and drain those too.

The woman turned a corner. Karen’s phone rang. The caller ID said “unknown caller.” Karen looked up the street and saw that the woman had her cell phone out. Could she be checking to see if the real Karen Lodrick was on her tail? And where were the police?

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As Karen approached a recycling center at the corner of Buchanan Street, a man stood looking quizzically at her, then at the woman she was following.

“Do you know her?” she asked.

“No. Do you?”

Karen told him she thought the woman had stolen her identity. “You’re not the first person to say that about her,” he said, arousing her suspicion about him as well. Was he an accomplice? Karen again called 911 as the woman took off up the hill, looking over her shoulder at Karen every few seconds.

“I need somebody to come to Buchanan and Market,” Karen told the 911 operator who answered. “She is running. I need the police.”

“What’s the problem, ma’am?”

“This woman has been taking my identity. For the last five months. It’s been a living hell.”

There was an odd voice mail from Karen’s bank waiting when she returned home to San Francisco in November 2006 from a family reunion in Michigan. Karen called back, and the service rep asked if she’d made any large withdrawals and mentioned one in the amount of $600. Karen assumed it was a bank error and asked the rep to verify the debit card number.

“That’s not my card,” she said.

The bank representative insisted — mistakenly, as Karen later learned — that someone had called from Karen’s phone to order the new debit card. After much back-and-forth, Karen convinced the rep that it wasn’t hers, and he canceled it. What he failed to mention was that a second new debit card had been issued on her account. And it was still open.

Concerned after the bank rep told her the order came from her home phone, Karen asked her neighbors if they’d heard about any break-ins. They hadn’t. But several people in her building mentioned that they’d seen mailboxes hanging open. A thief had apparently broken into the mail and stolen at least four envelopes: two with debit cards and two that provided the debit card PINs.

As far as Karen knew, the thief had stolen $600. Bad enough, but not life-altering. It wasn’t until she got to the bank, and a representative turned the computer screen around for her to see, that she understood what had occurred. Screen after screen showed dozens of withdrawals, just over the past few days. About $10,000 was gone. Karen’s balance was zero. Her overdraft protection plan had automatically deducted another $1,200 from savings to cover the shortfall after the thief had cleaned out the checking account.

Karen filed a police report, closed her now-empty account and submitted a claim. With no money to cover checks, she couldn’t pay her bills, her rent. She couldn’t even buy groceries. Late fees were compounded by black marks on her credit report. And that was just the beginning.

At five-two and 110 pounds, Karen Lodrick was tiny compared with the nearly six-foot-tall woman carrying the brown suede coat. Block after block in downtown San Francisco, Karen chased the woman, keeping the 911 operator on the phone to let her know exactly where they were.

She lost sight of the woman after she turned a corner. But as Karen looked through the French doors leading into a stately old apartment building, there she was again. One glance at Karen and the woman took off down the hill toward Market Street, a main thoroughfare with multiple lanes in either direction.

Traffic whizzed by. Locals strolled the tree-lined sidewalks and walked in and out of funky coffeehouses. Some, toting bags of bottles and aluminum cans, meandered toward the recycling center. People of every description moved along Market Street. But she didn’t see any police officers.

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