Identity theft? It’s more like ‘life’ theft

BY SCHUYLER KROPF
2/4/2007 – Ten years ago, Robert Burke became a deadbeat dad to a wife and child he didn’t know he had.

And he couldn’t land a lucrative job because of a conviction for a breaking and entering that he never knew he’d committed.

For nearly a decade, the one-time Charleston artist was the victim of the most flagrant case of identity theft ever investigated by federal agents in South Carolina.

Worst of all, the thief brazenly walked through life as Robert Burke.

He was Burke on his driver’s license and Burke when he was arrested.

He was Burke when he married a woman in North Carolina, had a child with her and later abandoned them both, authorities say.

He was Burke when he visited the doctor and Burke when unpaid bills piled up.

For the real Robert Burke, 38, now a vice president with Bank of America in Charlotte, life became a nonstop line of angry creditors demanding money and police asking questions.

“I sometimes tell people that it would have been better if he had burned down my house with all my possessions inside, and broken both my legs,” a reserved Burke says today.

“It wasn’t a case of him just stealing my identity to get a credit card and spend a bunch of money. He took my identity. He was living as me in every shape and form.”

On Monday, Burke’s tormentor, Walter Robert Hawes, 37, formerly of Surfside Beach, is scheduled to be sentenced in federal court after pleading guilty to one count of identity theft covering the 10 years of abuse he levied on Burke. Assistant U.S. Attorney Rhett DeHart is seeking a jail term beyond the three-year minimum from U.S. District Judge Patrick Michael Duffy. Prosecutors have labeled Hawes a “catch-me-if-you-can” thief for the numerous times he abused Burke’s name. Hawes’ lawyer did not return a call for comment.

When Burke arrived in Charleston from Fort Lauderdale in the 1990s, he was optimistic about his future. The multitalented artist took to the Holy City immediately, painting and selling funky artwork in the Market.

But his life changed the day a stranger answered a share-rental ad in a house Burke split with two others, on Perry Street near Hampton Park.

At first, Burke didn’t notice much about the quiet stranger who moved in down the hall and kept to himself. Until the day Hawes abruptly vanished. “He left his room trashed,” Burke recalled.

The first hint something was wrong came within a week. Burke’s checks were missing and $2,000 had evaporated from his bank account. He tried to get police interested in the theft, he said, but they didn’t seem overly concerned. Neither did the bank, which refunded the money.

Also missing were Burke’s Social Security card and his birth certificate. “I just figured I’d misplaced them,” he said. It would prove a costly oversight.

Burke doesn’t know at what point Hawes became him. But in 1997, Burke was told his wages at the Internet banking firm where he worked were being garnished for child support.

“That kind of freaked me out,” he said. Burke had no kids.

He pulled his credit report. It was headed toward ruin.

In a few short years, Hawes, acting with impunity, would rack up thousands of dollars in debt owed to stores and businesses in at least two states, authorities believe. There were unpaid bills for doctor, credit card, telephone and cable companies, all in Burke’s name, authorities say. Every week, the amounts escalated. And every month seemed worse than the one before as creditors came calling the real Robert Burke.

“I thought it would be easy to just say, ‘It wasn’t me, my identity was stolen.’ This was not the case. Creditors simply said, ‘Yeah right, buddy.’ ”

The calls came day in and day out, at work and at home and at all hours. They would stop for a while after Burke changed phone numbers. But they always found him and came back with the same demands for payment.

Collection agencies “aren’t kind people,” he said.

At the worst of it, nobody would touch Burke financially. His credit was so bad he couldn’t get a car loan with an interest rate of less than 22 percent.

The total loss to the businesses Hawes hit may exceed $100,000, authorities estimate, but concede they have no hard figures high or low.

Parallel to the financial fraud was Hawes’ criminal record. Early on, Burke learned that someone using his name had been arrested for breaking and entering in North Carolina and had spent time behind bars.

Police sent him inmate “Burke’s” mug shot. It was a grainy head-shot of his long-gone former roommate.

“It was his face and my name, and my Social Security number,” Burke said.

By now, Burke’s working career path was beset by a “chilling effect,” he said. He was denied jobs by employers who did background checks. He became afraid to leave any job he had because of what might pop up in any new examination of his past.

He even was forced to drive to Raleigh to get fingerprinted so that authorities could compare his fingerprints to those from every arrest the other Burke had compiled.

In 2004, Burke, at his financial and wit’s end, contacted the Secret Service in Charleston, asking them to pursue the case after getting no help in North Carolina.

At the time, the crime became surprisingly simple to solve. Agents detected a Robert Burke living in a duplex in Ladson. They drove there and confronted the man who was living with a new girlfriend at the time. He eventually admitted everything and was booked for identity theft.

Before he could face the allegations in court, Hawes fled, hiding out in Charleston, Berkeley and Dorchester counties, authorities say. “We were a couple days behind him for a year,” the Secret Service said last month. “He was one of those guys who kept moving and changing.”

Hawes was able to stay under the radar working as a day laborer doing construction. He was paid in cash and left no paper trial, the Secret Service said.

Ultimately, Hawes was found living in a Summerville trailer park after a Sears credit card purchase went bad. He was still using Burke’s name but had also stolen the identity of the son of the owner of a construction business where he worked, authorities said. Today he’s being housed in the Charleston County Detention Center.

Ahead of Monday’s scheduled sentencing, the real Burke estimates the past 10 years cost him at least $12,000 out-of-pocket for pulling credit reports, gas and lodging for going to Raleigh, increased interest payments and confirming background checks, plus thousands of hours in trying to restore his name.

Today he manages the online banking testing team for Bank of America.

“I’m glad to see the amount of money and technology the bank is investing in data security,” said Burke, who was able to start life from scratch with a new Social Security card.

“People worry about their data on the Internet but they have to remember that your paper documentation also needs to be protected. In my case, if my documents were in a safe-deposit box or in a safe, this never would have happened.”

Even with Hawes in jail, the money trail is still finding Burke, and so is the lingering aggravation. Late last month, a stray bill showed up, $267 Hawes owes to a Wachovia Bank.

Tips to combat identity fraud

–Keep important papers in a safe-deposit box.

–Periodically review your credit report and close any accounts you believe have been tampered with.

–File a fraud alert and victim statement with the three major credit bureaus: Equifax, Experian and Trans Union.

–Change PIN numbers and passwords on existing accounts.

–Contest all fraudulent accounts with the affected financial institution or business in writing. Follow up by sending a Federal Trade Commission Identity Theft affidavit, found at www.consumer,gov/idtheft. Call the FTC at 877-427-4338.

–File a police report, get a copy and be persistent. Under the Police Report Initiative, credit bureaus will accept a copy of a police report to block fraudulent account information from appearing on your credit report.

–Never give personal information over the phone. Scams sometimes run seasonally. During a recent election, a female telephoned South Carolina voters at home to verify voter registration and other personal information, something election offices don’t do.

Reach Schuyler Kropf at skropf@postandcourier.com or 937-5551.

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