Ten years ago this month, I wrote my first column for the Los Angeles Times. The topic was the huge mess that ensued after a guy in Connecticut stole my identity and ran up unpaid bills with credit card companies and Indian casinos.
I wrote about how I had to investigate the case myself — police nab fewer than 5 percent of identity thieves — and serve up my findings to law enforcement authorities. This resulted in my ID thief, Derrick Davis, being arrested and convicted for Social Security fraud. He was subsequently set for deportation to his native Jamaica, a prosecutor told me.
And that, I thought, was that.
Last week I got a call at home. It was for Davis. He was being sought in connection with an unpaid hospital bill in Connecticut. From just five years ago. In other words, he’s back.
And just like that, the nightmare starts again.
“It’s one of the most significant problems with identity theft,” said Paul Stephens, director of policy and advocacy for San Diego’s Privacy Rights Clearinghouse. “Once your information gets out there, it can stay out there.”
It’s unclear if Davis is once again using my Social Security number. But the fact that his personal troubles are still being linked to me illustrates the near-impossibility of fully correcting erroneous online information — which I spent many hours trying to do the last time I dealt with this problem. Yet even now, a debt collector searching public and private databases for Davis came up with my home number, raising the possibility that my credit score could be in danger if any action were to be taken against Davis, such as a lien on his property.
“Information gets sold, exchanged and stored in many, many databases,” Stephens said. “You just can’t find all the places it’s kept.”
A researcher at the Times and I scoured a bunch of databases for listings related to my Social Security number. After all this time, it still produced hits for Davis as well as for corruptions of our two names, such as Derrick Lazarus. A search for Davis’ wife, Charmaine, listed me as a relative.
My original investigation into Davis’ activities, 15 years ago, revealed that he apparently had pulled my Social Security number out of the air. The first three digits of people’s numbers relate to their place of birth, and I was born in Connecticut. It was Davis’ bad luck to have inadvertently picked the Social Security number of an investigative reporter.
It didn’t seem as if he was out to scam me. He was using my number to hold various jobs. When I found him, he was working for a catering company. But he was also decidedly cavalier with his spending. Davis owed nearly $4,000 to a pair of Indian casinos and had outstanding bills for nine credit cards.
And now this latest situation. I received a call from a Las Vegas investigator trying to track down Davis on behalf of a debt collector. The investigator refused to provide me with any information, except that the debt was for “a couple of thousand dollars” related to a 2012 hospital visit. My home number, the investigator said, came up in a search for Davis’ possible whereabouts.
Two can play at this game. My own search for Davis last week revealed that the state of Connecticut went after him and his wife in 2014 for $5,338 in unpaid taxes. The Internal Revenue Service put them in the crosshairs in 2009 for almost $15,000 in unpaid federal taxes.
In 2013, Charmaine Davis was sentenced in New Haven federal court to 24 months in prison for mortgage fraud. She also was fined $6,000 and ordered to forfeit $39,434.
I spent days trying to piece together a trail to Davis’ current location. Most of my efforts hit dead ends — disconnected numbers, former addresses. Then, on a Friday, a woman with a Jamaican accent answered the phone. After all these years, I’d found Davis’ wife. “I’m sorry to know this is happening to you,” she said of my latest encounter with a debt collector.
Charmaine Davis confirmed that she and her husband still reside in the New Haven area, but she said they’re together only “on and off.” She wouldn’t give me his number but agreed to pass mine along. She acknowledged that about 15 years ago Davis “came in the country and made up a Social Security number so he could get a job. It was your number.” She said he “got that straightened out” and now has his own Social Security number. She declined to comment on Davis’ current immigration status. Davis “has never been in the hospital,” she said, so she doesn’t know why a debt collector is seeking him in connection with a medical bill.
She wished me luck in extricating myself from this situation.
So what do you do when an ID thief reappears? Privacy experts say the first thing is to accept that you can never make the problem completely go away. “This is one of those super-scary crimes,” said Eric Goldman, co-director of Santa Clara University’s High Tech Law Institute. “It can persist for decades after the crime occurred.” He said there’s not much use in playing offense — that is, trying to clean up the thousands of databases containing consumer information. At the very least, though, it’s important to make sure your record is spotless with the three leading credit-reporting agencies: Experian, Equifax and TransUnion.
Beyond that, all victims of ID theft should enroll in a credit-monitoring program to keep tabs on their credit files, particularly if, as in my case, your Social Security number is known to someone else. There are various services available that will monitor all three credit agencies at a cost of roughly $20 a month.
If you really want to circle your wagons, contact each credit agency and have a freeze put on your files. This means no one can unlock them without a code number, which should prevent anyone from, say, applying for a credit card in your name. Typically, you have to pay $10 every time you freeze and unlock your files.
I told Goldman the story of how Davis had resurfaced in my life. “That has to be both frustrating and disconcerting,” he responded.
After I spoke with his wife, Davis didn’t get in touch. If he knows what’s good for him, he’ll keep his distance.
Lazarus can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.