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How this woman tracked down her identity thief

When Jessamyn Lovell’s wallet went missing at an art gallery in 2009, she took all the right precautions. She canceled all of her credit cards and put a fraud alert on her credit report to prevent anyone taking out new lines of credit under her name.

Despite these efforts, a year and a half later, Lovell, 38, received a phone call from a police officer who had strange news: A woman in San Francisco had been arrested for using Lovell’s driver’s license to check into a swanky hotel. Lovell recently recounted her story on NPR’s This American Life. She had gotten a new license but, knowing a potential identity thief would need her Social Security number as well to really wreak havoc, Lovell hadn’t considered reporting her old license stolen.

“I just sort of thought, well, that’s annoying,” says Lovell, an artist and professor who lives in Albuquerque, N.M. “I didn’t think much else of it until I started getting a flood of bills.”

The bills included several unpaid parking tickets and thousands of dollars worth of charges for three rental cars she had no recollection of ever purchasing. Soon after the bills started coming, she received a summons from a San Francisco court to answer to a theft charge from a supermarket.

She grudgingly spent $700 on airfare and showed up on her scheduled court date, with a police report in hand showing that her license had been stolen and used by another woman. The judge agreed to dismiss the charges, but Lovell found she wasn’t ready to let it go.

“That’s when, for me, it kind of started to all become like an investigation,” she says. At the time, Lovell, a professional photographer, had been taking photographs for a series on socioeconomic class and how it impacts an individual’s identity.  Suddenly, piecing together the identity of the woman was who had caused her so much grief became “like a full-time job,” she says.

With help from private investigators and her own amateur detective skills, Lovell did manage to find the perpetrator — a woman named Erin Hart. She tracked her down to a local police precinct in San Francisco, where Hart was being released following an unrelated arrest. She followed her for a few hours, snapping photos covertly, but never introduced herself.

Seeing Hart in the flesh wasn’t quite as satisfying as she had hoped it might be, Lovell says. Hart was clearly not financially stable. When Lovell later found her probation officer, the officer revealed that Hart was and, as of December 2014, is homeless. Hart hasn’t responded to any of Lovell’s letters or requests to speak sent through her probation officer. Still, Lovell knew she wanted to share her story and the repercussions of Hart’s actions.

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She compiled the entire paper trail  — all the past due car rental bills, all of her court documents, her police report, and her photos of Hart — and turned it into a traveling art exhibit. The exhibit, currently running in a San Francisco art gallery, was converted into a book, “Dear Erin Hart,”  which went on sale this month.

“It's almost as if she is part of my life and I know that sounds a little creepy and I'm sorry to her in a way for dragging it out, because my original intention was not to make a public spectacle of her. ” Lovell says. “ I wanted to sort of take back something that was taken from me… This woman wasn’t me. She was a separate person from me.”

“Expunging a criminal record is a nightmare."

Financially, Lovell was able to save her credit from much damage. She was quick to contact the car rental agency and dispute the charges. It took about nine months for them to finally back off.  

“If she would have not paid the rental car charges, [the agencies] could have sent the receivables to collections and that certainly would have ended up on her credit reports,” says John Ulzheimer, credit expert at CreditSesame.com. If enough time passed, the agency could have sued her. And her credit score could have taken a big hit.

Ulzheimer recommends always erring on the safe side when you suspect a piece of your identity has been stolen, be it a driver’s license, Social Security number or a credit card.

Like Lovell, you can easily place a fraud alert on your credit reports from the main three bureaus, which will prevent any new accounts from being opened in your name. Alerts last for 90 days, but you can extend them if you submit proof that you’ve filed a police report.

Neal O’Farrell, founder of the Identity Theft Council, a nonprofit organization that helps victims of ID theft,  says losing a license is a particularly annoying situation. Most DMVs don’t make it easy to simply walk in and cancel an old license without a police report. And police won’t necessarily allow you to file a report simply because your license has gone missing — you typically have to prove that your identity has been stolen and has been used by another person illegally first. In Lovell’s case, she was lucky that Hart got herself arrested while impersonating her and that police were savvy enough to figure out Hart was using another person’s ID. Some crooks use other people’s licenses like a “get out of jail free” card (for example, passing a stolen or fake ID to an officer when they’re stopped for a speeding ticket) and innocent people wind up answering for crimes they never committed.

“Expunging a criminal record is a nightmare,” O’Farrell says. “It’s an easy crime to fall into but it can take years to get out of.”  

The Identity Theft Council and the Identity Theft Resource Center are both great (and free) tools for consumers who think they are victims of ID theft.

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