As ID theft mushrooms here, victims suffer
As identity theft has skyrocketed in the last five years, more South Floridians are being plunged into the aggravating and painfully slow process of proving they exist after thieves steal their identity.
From thieves installing ATM skimmer devices at Publix Supermarkets to those filing fraudulent tax returns in someone else’s name, identity theft has left many South Florida victims in financial limbo. College students can’t get financial aid. Some people can’t close on homes they were scheduled to buy. Others can’t get new credit cards. Thousands have had to wait more than a year for federal tax refunds they were counting on to pay bills.
Identity theft affects South Florida’s young and old — from babies’ newly issued Social Security numbers being filched to thieves stealing identities from the graves of the deceased.
Even law enforcement officers haven’t escaped. Davie Police Capt. Dale Engle, has been waiting seven months for his federal tax refund check, since a thief filed for one in his name — just five days before Engle tried to submit his own.
“It’s a huge problem,” Engle said.
Such is the reality in South Florida, where the dramatic jump in reported incidents to the Federal Trade Commission — from 8,317 cases in 2007 to 17,668 in 2011 — has made us the identity theft capital of the nation. More identity thefts per capita occur here than in New York, Los Angeles, Chicago or any other large urban area of the country.
Last year saw the number of identity thefts explode, with claims jumping 76 percent in Broward, Palm Beach and Miami-Dade counties. South Florida reports increased from 184 per 100,000 population in 2010 to 324 per 100,000 population in 2011, according to the FTC.
For Richard Zadanoff, 77, having his identity hijacked meant his plans to move from a home to a condo were upended. The Tamarac man discovered the problem earlier this year during tax season, but he couldn’t close on the condo because the bank found records of someone else’s claim to be him at a different address.
Zadanoff stood in line for hours at the Internal Revenue Service office in Plantation to report that his identity had been stolen — only to be turned away because so many others were ahead of him. He finally got an IRS office in Virginia to take his information by phone.
Victims of tax-related identity theft are required to file affidavits with the IRS and report the case to local police. Some departments have balked because they figure the federal government will investigate, said Cindy A. Liebes, the FTC’s Southeast regional director. But sometimes victims can’t get credit agencies to list the identity theft in their files unless there is a police report, she said.
The FTC also recommends that victims report the crime to the Social Security Administration.
Carol Flynn, of Davie, said the IRS didn’t tell her to report her tax-related identity theft to local police, the FTC, the SSA and the credit reporting agencies. She’s still waiting to hear about her refund, but said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson’s staff directed her to a taxpayer advocate who is updating her about her case.
At times, state and local agencies also have inadvertently put personal information online.
Bruce Hogman, a senior computer systems consultant who lives in Fort Lauderdale, was upset when he learned that Broward County had published some of his personal information online.
“My Social Security number was on the web for five years before a neighbor told me,” he said.
Broward County promptly removed his number after he alerted them, Hogman said.
Still, he fears others may be exposed to identity theft because some of their personal information may remain online in public documents such as deeds.
Lyz DeMarco, of Hollywood, couldn’t believe it when the IRS rejected a tax return because a thief had claimed her identity first; she had already been a victim twice before.
Once, someone tried to buy surfboards in Texas with her stolen credit card number. “It was a crazy amount of surfboards,” she said. Another time someone tried to use her debit card at a sports bar. “They must have made a counterfeit one,” she said. “I had mine with me.”
DeMarco said she encountered hurdles when she tried to report the crime, with police telling her they didn’t take IRS cases. On a third try, police took a report. The IRS required her to submit an “identity theft affidavit” to prove who she was. She spent hours on the telephone with different IRS staffers before her theft claim was finally accepted.
Despite the ordeal, which lasted half a year, DeMarco considers herself lucky. She called the IRS on Wednesday, and after she was on hold for an hour, this time there was good news.
Her refund was being wired into her bank account — with $50 in interest.
“I was floored — I was absolutely floored,” DeMarco said.
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