When Somebody Else's Identity Theft Scam Gets You Arrested
You know what identity theft is. Someone gets your info, somehow uses it to rent a yacht, and boom, your credit is ruined and you never qualify for a Best Buy card again. But it turns out that's hardly the worst thing that can happen when someone impersonates you. Criminal identity theft is regular identify theft's ugly cousin, and involves someone getting caught doing a crime while using your name, and then you get the blame. What happens next? We asked "Karen" about what happened to her. She told us ...
Out Of Nowhere, The Cops Tell The World You're A Criminal
In the summer of 2015, Karen's cousin called her and said, "Hey, so this is weird. My dad swears he saw you on Crime Stoppers last night."
She was talking about a news segment called "Wheel of Fugitives." People from the sheriff's office would spin a wheel with a bunch of pictures of criminals who either had an outstanding warrant or had been charged and had skipped bail. Whichever person the wheel landed on would become "fugitive of the week." That meant that any tips you sent in could earn you a prize of up to $3,000, depending on the crime. With the right production values, we can totally see that as a Black Mirror episode or 1987 dystopian thriller, but this is what it looks like on a local news budget and smiles all around.
Not the exact episode, but this is how it works
Karen's picture was on the wheel. It was her mugshot from a traffic offense in Florida in 2010, for which there was no active warrant. (Legal tip: If you hit a stationary car, do not leave the scene of the accident.) The wheel didn't land on her -- if it had, she'd have been featured on the sheriff's social media pages, and even on digital billboards around the city. But even without her becoming an Instagram/overpass star, merely being on the wheel was enough to catch her uncle's eye.
Having not seen the episode herself, Karen thought that maybe he'd just seen someone who looked a lot like her. She called the line, hoping to find out exactly what was going on and maybe get a funny story out of it. "So, someone apparently saw me on Crime Stoppers, hahaha!" she said into the phone. The woman on the other end did not laugh. She replied, recalls Karen, "in the most 'what a stupid piece of shit' tone I had ever heard in my life."
"Ma'am," she said, "you have a warrant for your arrest. We are going to need you to come down to the station right away." Karen would end up spending her 30th birthday getting booked into jail.
Criminals Are Still Pulling Scams Using Bad Checks, And You Might Get The Blame
It took a long time for Karen to get the full story of what exactly the crime was, but we'll give it to you upfront.
On December 17, 2014, while Karen was busy at work over in a neighboring state, a woman walked into a Kohl's in north Pensacola. She loaded her shopping cart with $1,389.73 in merchandise, and when it came time to check out, she asked to pay by check. Yeah, in case you were curious, it's still possible to use checks at department stores. And these weren't even checks from a checkbook that you get from your bank. They were traveler's checks. So, uh, in case you were really curious -- suspiciously so -- yes, it's possible to use traveler's checks to buy stuff at department stores.
The next day, Kohl's learned the checks were "bad." That doesn't mean they bounced (traveler's checks don't bounce). It means they were forged, drawn to look like they were made by a company that issues money orders specifically for fuel purchases in the transportation industry:
Of all the checks she handed over, only one was signed. Each had a toll-free number people are supposed to call to verify them, but none of the cashiers dialed it. The value of the check was handwritten (which is not exactly normal for traveler's checks), and the name was handwritten too. The store did not get any ID from the thief, despite the usual Kohl's policy on accepting checks.
A week later, the woman came to the same store (the parking there is just fabulous, according to Yelpers). She had about $150 in goods this time, and she paid with a $500 fake traveler's check, so the cashier gave her $353.09 cash in change. Modern cashiers, in turns out, have been trained on using credit cards and Apple Pay. Older methods mystify them, so they're easily intimidated and confused.
After handing the money over, the cashier did ask the woman to stay for a sec, and contacted a loss prevention officer. The officer recognized the woman's name from the previous week's bad check, which had almost certainly been the highlight of that guy's loss prevention week. The cashier now asked the woman to provide some alternative method of payment. Instead the woman abandoned her stuff, ran to the parking lot, and took off.
We're not going to tell you the exact name she put on the check, but here's an approximation: Karen Marie Thompson. If you're trying to think of a fake name, that's a good enough one. Common first name, common last name, and roughly 100 percent of white women have the middle name "Marie." Unfortunately for our Karen, until her wedding a couple years before this crime, that happened to have been her name. So when the sheriff entered it into his master name index, she came up. And that, friends, is all it takes for someone else to completely fuck over your life.
There's A System For Helping Indigent Defendants, But It Can Be Worse Than Useless
"When I first heard there was a warrant out on me, I dropped the phone like that shit was on fire," says Karen. She asked a couple of friends what to do next, and somehow, none recommended a life on the run. But they did suggest she see a bail bondsman before going to the police station.
A bail bondsman is a person who will put up your bail in exchange for a payment that's a fraction of the bail amount. They also have access to warrants info, and Karen's bondsman was the one who told her that she had a $10,000 bond out on her for check fraud at Kohl's. "I don't even carry checks," she told him, "or shop at Kohl's, so this has to be a mistake." Plus, there was the small fact that she had been working in Alabama on the day in question, so she could prove she was nowhere near that store at the time. Besides, if anyone writes a bad check using that thief's plan, there's zero reason for them to use their real name. So if you look at it a certain way, the sheriff's office might have been better off putting out a warrant for everyone not named Karen Marie Thompson.
But the bondsman insisted that the only way to clear the matter was to serve herself on the warrant and be booked. "I would end up paying this guy $1,000 to stay out of prison for a crime I didn't commit," she says. Luckily, bail is supposed to be refundable after a period of time, so ...
"I never got any of that money back," says Karen.
Yeah. And it can get worse. This whole bail system frequently leads to bondsmen withholding defendants' collateral and making money off them. Incidentally, this job exists virtually nowhere outside of the U.S.
Karen also got a lawyer, which would run her thousands more in fees. Now, public defenders are a thing, and they cost nothing. But you can't exactly get a public defender before you've turned yourself in, and Karen needed legal advice about the whole bail situation. And even after that initial consultation, she chose to keep a private lawyer because public defenders almost always push for plea deals. They have too many cases to afford to do otherwise. "No public defender would be willing to work with me for months to clear my name over a couple thousand in bad checks," she says. "I'm a single mom with a young child. I couldn't risk going to prison -- even for a short length of time -- for a crime I didn't commit."
Well, shit. This is making it sound like the criminal justice system is built to screw over everyone who comes in contact with it, whether they've done anything wrong or not. Especially considering ...
One Legal Setback Can Kick You Into A Spiral Of Poverty
To pay the bondsman and lawyer, Karen borrowed money from her mother, her brother, and a couple different cousins (possibly even the branch of the family whose TV-watching pulled her into this mess). She was lucky to have them helping her out, but even with them, she was screwed.
She was a realtor at the time. When she told her broker the situation, he said he'd have to release her until she resolved it. "If any of my clients had gotten wind of the charges, it would have been a nightmare," she said. She got where he was coming from -- "suspected felon" sounds bad to a prospective buyer, and "may steal your money" sounds even worse -- but like that, she was out of a job. "This also meant handing over my client list," she says, "which I'd been working on for the past few years."
When the time came to renew her license with the real estate commission, she opted not to do so (if she did and explained the situation, they probably would have suspended her anyway). She started applying to new jobs, but she was now failing every background check. You might have read about how this situation is tough and unfair after someone's already been punished for a crime they committed, but the one thing worse than that is going through the same shit-cycle when you haven't done anything wrong.
Out of money and also in debt, Karen missed payments on her car. It got repossessed. "I ended up breaking my lease and moving back home with my mom," she says. That meant sleeping on a couch, both her and her young son. "I did get a newish car recently," she says, "that I'm paying outrageous interest on because my credit is shot after having a car repo'd and breaking the lease at the property I was renting. It's been a very humbling experience."
Eventually, she got a job. It was eight bucks an hour doing the night shift at a gas station. We don't know why she didn't try applying for shifts at that one Kohl's branch; we hear they're in dire need of competent staff there.
Getting Vindicated Doesn't Undo Any Of The Harm
Months passed. Karen told her lawyer she'd be happy to hand over handwriting samples to convince the cops she wasn't the woman who did the fraud. She'd submit DNA samples. She'd take a polygraph. He said none of that would do. There was some additional evidence he'd have to review, and they'd have to wait till it was released.
That evidence was surveillance footage from Kohl's, and they finally got it. Five months after the arrest, she got to see the woman who'd screwed her over.
"She's 150 pounds bigger than me!" Karen said. "I'm clearly not her!"
"I don't know about that," said the lawyer. "You are both white women with long hair. You can see how there might be a resemblance."
In fact, right after that woman had fled Kohl's that second time, the loss prevention officer searched the web for the name she provided. He'd found Karen's old traffic mugshot online and showed it to Kohl's employees. When an officer later showed that photo along with others in a lineup, one employee picked Karen out as the thief. That's right, this thief had, by sheer coincidence, randomly picked a name that was A) the name of an actual person B) who actually lived in the area, C) had a record, and D) looked vaguely like her. It was, like for Andy Dufresne in Shawshank, a decidedly inconvenient coincidence.
On the other hand, the other employee the officer showed the photos to picked out someone besides Karen as the culprit. But one witness was enough to give the officer evidence to ask for a warrant. It also turned out that Kohl's employees had seen the thief's vehicle and noted its number. The police did not use this lead, or maybe Kohl's got the number down wrong. What they did do was put out a warrant and arrest Karen, who did not have a silver Ford SUV, let alone one that matched the tag numbers the employee saw.
The lawyer spent some of those months contacting individual people from Karen's workplace and scheduling depositions so they could say under oath that she was at work when the crimes happened. Yeah, an alibi is a useful thing, but getting it down into some form that sways the authorities takes a long time, and the burden for putting that together falls on you. Once they filed all that, the state's attorney had to drop the charges. There was no trial. "I just got a call from my lawyer's office," she says, "saying, 'Congrats, the charges are dropped. You can come by and pick up the paperwork.'"
She asked her lawyer, and other lawyers, if she could sue for damages, but they said it wasn't worth trying. She had no way of proving bad intent from either the police department or Kohl's. "Three years later," she says, "I'm still trying to get my life back on track." And nope, the real thief was never caught. If you ever run into her, kick her ass for Karen, will you?
Uh, on second thought, don't do that. You might get the wrong woman.
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