To Catch an Identity Thief

"I hunted down the woman who stole my life"

By Anita Bartholomew from Reader's Digest

As the identity thief passed an abandoned shopping cart, Karen saw her arm swing out. She tossed something inside. Karen raced to the cart. “I got what she dropped,” she told the 911 operator. “It’s a wallet. A Prada wallet.” Karen wanted to look inside, but she had no time.

The thief ran into a busy intersection against the light and flagged down a taxi. Karen panicked. “She is not going to get away,” she cried to the operator. “I am not going to let her escape.” She caught the taxi before the driver pulled out.

“Don’t let her go!” she implored. “She’s an identity thief.” The driver lifted his hands off the wheel and held them up. Her escape thwarted, the woman got out and confronted Karen.

“Why are you chasing me?”

For an instant, Karen felt doubt. What if this wasn’t the thief? She tried to convince the woman to wait for the police. But she took off down Market Street again, toward Octavia, where the freeway spilled out its traffic. Karen kept after her.

A vintage orange streetcar pulled up to the bus stop, and the woman jumped aboard, Karen right behind. Adrenaline pumping, she was totally focused on the thief.

“Please don’t drive away,” Karen told the driver. The thief quickly ducked off again. “Why don’t you just wait and you can talk to the police?” Karen called.

To Karen’s surprise, the woman answered, saying she was on probation and would be arrested. Karen now had no doubt she’d found the right person.

It drove Karen crazy that it took about two weeks for the bank’s credit card division to process the problem and recredit money to her account. She felt hopeful when the bank called to tell her it had a surveillance video of the thief. On it Karen saw a big, dark-haired woman in a suede coat and designer sunglasses at an ATM. Karen signed an affidavit that she didn’t know the woman, got a printout of her image, and that was it.

Meanwhile, the thief reached deeper into Karen’s life. She used her Social Security number and other information to get a counterfeit driver’s license, showing Karen’s license number but the thief’s picture. With the license and the Social Security number, she reopened accounts that Karen had closed years before.

One day, the Dell computer company called Karen to confirm that it was all right to send “her” $7,000 order to an address different from the one on her account.

“Close that account and don’t deliver those computers,” she told Dell’s rep, explaining someone had stolen her identity. She asked for the address the thief had wanted the equipment sent to. Dell refused to give her the address, saying she’d have to put the request in writing.

Karen placed fraud alerts with the credit reporting agencies. But that didn’t stop the thief from opening more accounts in Karen’s name. Again and again, she asked the bank to put an alert on her account, but when she checked, it wasn’t there. The thief got into her new bank account, and the whole cycle began again. She was at her wit’s end.

To add to her frustration, the bank claimed Karen had failed to come in to view the surveillance video. It didn’t matter that she’d signed an affidavit. The bank couldn’t find it and cut off access to her funds. She viewed the video again and signed another affidavit. The bank lost that one too. She signed another.

Now, with a phony driver’s license, the thief was stalking her third checking account.

For half an hour, up and down the streets, around corners and into alleyways, Karen Lodrick, frightened but determined, pursued the woman with the suede coat. Karen lost her twice when she slipped into buildings to hide. And then she lost her a third time at an indoor parking lot. “It’s over,” she told the 911 operator. Exasperated and exhausted, Karen zipped open the Prada wallet.

Two of her bank statements were tucked into one side of the large wallet. On the other were the two debit cards used to clean out her account in November. She also found one of her own paychecks. But what chilled her most were tiny “cue cards” with her name, Social Security number, driver’s license number and address.

The 911 operator assured her that an officer would be there as soon as he finished an emergency call, and Karen agreed to wait by the entrance to the garage. When the cop arrived a few minutes later, Karen told him what had occurred, feeling little hope that he’d find the woman now.

But only moments later, the officer found her — crouched between a car and the building, smoking a cigarette.

“Idiot! You should have kept running,” Karen told her.

Epilogue

The arresting officer said the identity thief, Maria Nelson, had at least 60 prior arrests, was indeed on probation and was wanted in another jurisdiction for similar crimes. When Nelson came before a judge 44 days later, however, thanks to a plea deal with the prosecutor, she was sentenced to only time served plus probation.

Meanwhile, Karen keeps getting billed for phone service and items at a department store that she didn’t buy. And she fears her ID may have been sold on the black market, prolonging her nightmare.