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Identity Theft Crisis

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The Paper Chase

Though phishing and hacking get the media attention, most cases of identity theft still happen offline. According to a 2006 survey by Javelin Research and the Better Business Bureau, more than half of victims had their credit cards or checkbooks stolen, their garbage ransacked, their personal files pilfered at work or at school, or their mailboxes raided.

San Francisco creative consultant Karen Lodrick learned this the hard way in November 2006, when a thief snagged two unsolicited credit/debit cards sent by her bank, plus documents containing PIN numbers and her Social Security Number from her apartment mailbox.

As Karen details on her Web site, fightingbacknow.com, this was the beginning of a six-month odyssey that would drain $22,000 from her accounts and cost the self-employed woman about $30,000 in lost income because she had to turn down work while she dealt with the theft. As Karen closed one false account, the thief would open a new one somewhere else. Throughout the ordeal, Karen says, her bank treated her like the criminal, not the victim.

What's unusual about this story is that Karen personally apprehended her identity thief, 31-year-old Maria Nelson. After obtaining photos of Nelson captured by her bank's security cameras, Karen spotted her virtual clone at a Starbucks and chased her through the streets into an underground parking garage, trapping her there until police arrived. Eventually, Nelson pleaded guilty to one count of fraudulently using someone else's identity and was sentenced to time already served in jail for other offenses, plus three years of probation.

"The whole thing has been surreal," Karen says. "I've had mothers come up to me and say, 'I've read your story to my daughter to teach her how to be strong.' I don't want to be known as an advocate for chasing down criminals, but I do think I'm a lesson in trusting your gut and realizing how powerful you truly are."

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