Thursday, April 28, 2005 | This is part one in a two-part series.

For 10 years, Sheila Gordon led a secret life. So secret in fact that she did not even know about it. Her identity had been cloned and the thieves did horrible things with her name and credit. She has finally recovered from that personal disaster and has since dedicated herself to assisting other victims of the often faceless crime of identity theft. Sheila Gordon is the director of victim services for the Identity Theft Resource Center, which is headquartered in San Diego.

The Identity Theft Resource Center, founded at the turn of the 21st century by Linda and Jay Foley, is a national nonprofit organization that focuses exclusively on (you guessed it) identity theft. With representatives nationwide, its focus is on consumer education and victim support.

“Identity theft can be an isolating crime. We empower victims with the knowledge they are not the only person this has ever happened to and provide hands-on help and support so they can recover,” explains Gordon.

Identity crimes account for about 40 percent of all fraud crimes in America. The stats for San Diego show we rank 10th in the country for identity theft incidents and 11th nationally for identity fraud, as reported by the Federal Trade Commission in 2004.

What’s the difference? Privacy and information security lawyer Darity Wesley of La Mesa’s Privacy Solutions, Inc. explains, “Identity fraud is when someone commandeers your credit cards and runs up bills in your name. Identity theft is when someone actually steals your vitals and builds a new life in your name.”

Identity piracy is a fairly low-risk, high-profit crime. For example, car makers have gone to extremes partnering with after-market vendors to provide gadgets to prevent auto theft. Now a thief breaking into your car is probably looking for the papers in your trunk to glean and sell your identity on the black market. Not as dramatic as a big car chase but much more profitable. By the way, don’t leave any personal papers in your parked car.

Around the world, safeguards are rapidly being put into place by both the public and private sectors. Germans who lose a wallet will soon be able to call a single toll-free number to freeze all their accounts so that missing bank cards cannot be used. This government service is the first of its kind worldwide. There is identity theft legislation pending in the House of Representatives, California and other states nationwide. In the private sector, many companies are now championing the data security cause. For example, Equifax just rolled out a downloadable Internet toolbar defense against online fraud and identity theft that helps consumers quickly determine the safety levels of Web sites – before they reveal personal information that could make them vulnerable to fraud.

Identity crimes frequently cross jurisdictional boundaries. They often occur outside the city or county in which the victim lives.

Enter the CATCH team. The Computer and Technology Crime High Tech Response Team is one of the great crime-stopping teams San Diego County has on its side. It is a proactive investigative and prosecutorial multi-jurisdictional team comprised of 18 high- powered local, regional, state and federal agencies. CATCH project director Keith Burt of the San Diego District Attorney’s office has been a prosecutor for more than 30 years and feels that the team is having a positive impact.

Burt suspects these crimes have been going on for a long time. “It’s old-time fraud using high tech tools,” he said. The CATCH team has several cracked rings of thieves and prosecuted them successfully. Next he would like to see a more developed public-private partnership including work with financial institutions.

“Our team has trained thousands of law enforcement officers to combat this crime. We have a holistic approach to each crime which means we develop and implement a strategy on a case by case basis. We’ve had some great successes, but it’s only a drop in the bucket.”

Sheila Gordon applauds those successes. “What is great about San Diego is that we take police reports, which make people feel authentic and validated. Many states refuse to take reports, which often causes a secondary wounding to the already-shattered crime victim. The county recognizes this as a real crime and even acknowledged the Identity Theft Resource Center with a Victim Assistance award at the Candlelight Vigil for Crime Victims on April 11.”

The real crime is that people perpetrate this piracy at all.

Cristina Smith (

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