1 Monday» July 10» 2006 A stolen life: Identity theft nightmare Alicia McAteer is haunted by an impostor who cashes bogus cheques and crashes cars in her name. Police say there is nothing they can do. Lori Culbert Vancouver Sun Saturday, June 24, 2006 The nightmare began outside a Langley bowling alley in January 2005, when Alicia McAteer felt someone tug at the purse she was holding with both hands behind her back. McAteer thought one of the half-dozen friends she was standing with, while waiting for the bowling alley to open, was playing a prank on her. But none of her buddies took the purse. And no one saw who did. "That was the weirdest thing. We couldn't get over how my purse was taken," said McAteer, a psychology student who just finished her second year at Kwantlen College. McAteer, who was 18 years old at the time, filed a report that night with Langley RCMP, and started replacing her driver's licence, social insurance card, B.C. health card, and Kwantlen student card. CREDIT: Steve Bosch, Vancouver Sun Alicia McAteer got a phone call from Mount Seymour in May 2005 that a snowboard she'd rented was damaged. For McAteer, who doesn't snowboard, it was just the beginning of her problems. "I went about getting my new ID. I didn't think much about it. I thought my biggest worry was losing my new cellphone and purse," she recalled in a recent interview. The fallout, at first, was annoying but minimal. The person who took her cellphone sent obscure text messages to everyone on McAteer's contact list, telling them to meet at Mama Panda's. No one was there when McAteer went to the Langley buffet restaurant. Four months later, in May 2005, McAteer got a call from Mount Seymour, saying the snowboard she rented had been damaged. McAteer doesn't snowboard. That June, Rogers Video phoned and said she hadn't returned all the videos she rented. She doesn't have an account with Rogers.
2 In each case, McAteer explained her wallet had been stolen, and provided her Langley RCMP file number. She didn't begin to really worry about the ramifications of someone impersonating her until September, 2005 when she received a phone call at work from the Insurance Corporation of B.C. (ICBC). The government worker wanted to know if she was Alicia McAteer? Yes, she said. Of Wharf Road in Sechelt? No, said McAteer who lives in Surrey and had never been to Sechelt. "Then they read out my driver's licence number and it was correct," she recalled. "They said I wasn't responding to all the notices they sent to me about my accident. Then they asked me about my blue 1988 Oldsmobile. I said, no, I drive a green Dodge Neon and I've never been in an accident." McAteer spent several days proving the person who insured the Oldsmobile using her name and driver's licence was not, in fact, her. That required providing the police report on her stolen wallet and proof from her boss that she was at work at the time of the accident. And an alert ICBC fraud prevention officer noticed that a witness description of the women driving the car did not match McAteer's eye colour, weight or height, said ICBC spokeswoman Kate Best. "They noticed [McAteer] didn't look like it was alleged that she looked like in the crash," Best said. McAteer's file was then partially, but not completely, cleared. As a precaution, the young woman, who works part-time at a golf course and a restaurant while also going to school, contacted Equifax and Trans Union, agencies which place fraud alerts on credit reports. "I thought it was all done at that point," she said. But this April, just three days before she was to go on a two-week vacation to Mexico, McAteer got a phone call from Vancouver police, who were investigating two fraud complaints: Someone with her name was cashing large cheques that looked legitimate, but were counterfeit, and had also used a bogus personal cheque to buy thousands of dollars of stamps. McAteer met with Vancouver police, who eventually switched her from the suspect to the victim in the scam. Police had fuzzy video footage of the impersonator from a surveillance camera at one of the businesses that were bilked. "Police said she looks a lot like me, just 40 pounds heavier," McAteer said. She left for her much-needed vacation, and while in Mexico tried to withdraw $20 from a bank machine. There was nothing in the account, which seemed odd because she had saved
3 up more than $700 for her trip. McAteer phoned her father, who went to her bank branch to put $400 in his daughter's account. "He was talking to the teller and said his daughter was in Mexico, and she said that's strange because there's all these transactions in the Vancouver area," McAteer recalled. "So, obviously it wasn't me." When she came home from Mexico, she spent several hours convincing a bank employee that she wasn't the person who drained her account of cash, or deposited $7,000 worth of counterfeit cheques. "Then I said, 'What am I going to do about my money?' And she said, 'You don't have any money,'" McAteer recalled. "I went home and cried and freaked out." Her cash that disappeared was eventually replaced by the bank. In the meantime, McAteer set up a new account and a new credit card number with the bank, because her old accounts had all become linked to the fake Sechelt address. The next day, she went in person to deposit her pay cheque in her new account which -- in just 24 hours -- had been linked by the bank's head office to the Sechelt address again because McAteer and the impersonator had the same name and social insurance number. Her new visa card was also mailed to the Sechelt address, she said. Fed up, McAteer closed all her accounts at the bank in May and went to a credit union, where she now has a savings account but cannot get a credit card because she has been deemed a credit risk. McAteer said she phoned the Vancouver police to report the bank fraud, but the officer told her to contact the RCMP because it happened in Burnaby. She said she phoned and visited the RCMP in Burnaby, as well as left multiple messages with the detachment in Sechelt where the impersonator's address is listed, but did not hear back from the Mounties in May. "Once I switched banks, I thought things would be okay," she said. "And then [last] Monday, I came home and got a letter from the government. It was a notice saying my licence was being prohibited due to these tickets." The letter was ominous: "In the interest of public safety, and as the superintendent of motor vehicles, I am informing you of my intent to prohibit you from driving a motor vehicle... for a term of three months, due to your unsatisfactory driving record." The letter indicated McAteer had been charged with speeding and driving contrary to the restrictions on her licence -- refraining from alcohol and posting a new driver "N" on her car -- on April 12, 2006 in Gibsons. "I flipped out, I absolutely flipped out. It's just one thing after another," said McAteer. She called the number on the nasty letter, and re-explained to ICBC about her identity theft situation. She is being sent a victim-identification package to fill out, and needs to get letters from her school and/or employer to prove where she was on the date of the speeding infraction.
4 Once ICBC receives her package, the suspension threat will be put on hold -- but won't be terminated until the police officer who issued the speeding ticket reviews his or her notes and agrees that McAteer wasn't the person driving the car, said Best. If the officer doesn't believe McAteer was a victim of identity theft, her next option is to go to court, Best said. McAteer said she is frustrated because she feels like her case should be easy to solve, since she's been told that the bank has a good surveillance tape of the impersonator, ICBC has a name, and Vancouver police have a description. In addition, Sechelt RCMP phoned McAteer this week to tell her that an officer had stopped the woman in April for shoplifting baby food, but didn't make the connection to the fraud complaints and let her go, she said. And also this week, a Canada Post worker at Park Royal Mall in West Vancouver called police after the woman tried to use a cheque to buy more stamps. The worker had asked the impersonator for identification, because Canada Post had flagged McAteer's name, but she disappeared after saying she would get some ID from her car, McAteer said Friday. "I don't understand why nothing can be done," she said. "I don't see how she is getting away with it. How can she go into banks and do thousands of dollars in fraud and crash cars, and still get away with it?" Best said an ICBC fraud prevention officer, after noticing that McAteer didn't look like the woman involved in the 2005 car accident, contacted police. But she said it is up to police to lay criminal charges. Sgt. Ken Athans, head of the Vancouver police Identity Theft Task Force, was not familiar with McAteer's file. That's because his new and highly successful task force targets large groups of people who work together across the Lower Mainland to pull off organized and very lucrative identity theft. If McAteer's impersonator surfaces as a link to the cells targeted by the task force, Athans is confident she will be arrested. "That would most likely stop the continuing victimization of her," he said. He has sympathy for McAteer and others in her situation, adding that in an ideal world there would be enough manpower and cooperation between police and outside agencies to solve a case like her's. But for a variety of possible reasons, including the fact that identity theft cases are complicated and often involve multiple police jurisdictions, no one agency may step up to take responsibility for individual cases like McAteer's. "We probably have people pointing fingers at each other saying it's your jurisdiction... It's a huge problem. Resources are always going to be a problem. And we need to find a way to empower somebody to do something about that. That's sort of the shadow that identity criminals are able to operate in," he said. "It's really tough for her to go to the top of the pile... There are a lot of people with stories like her's, and we hate to hear them." Best praised McAteer for contacting ICBC immediately after receiving the suspension letter. "She was absolutely terrific because she got on the ball right away. I think that's an issue
5 we're noticing more. Definitely the thought of identity theft is out there more," Best said. ICBC will not allow anyone, including victims of identity theft, to get a new driver's licence number because a person's driving history needs to remain with them for life, Best said. And, besides, issuing a new licence to McAteer still wouldn't terminate the legitimate one being used by the imposter, which doesn't expire until ICBC's current system flags a driver's licence as stolen, so fraud staff or police are alerted about any activity involving the licence -- such as getting into an accident. Unfortunately for McAteer, her licence wasn't flagged in the ICBC system after it was stolen, possibly due to human error or a miscommunication when she got her replacement licence. (Best stresses that residents need to tell ICBC when their licence is stolen, in addition to reporting the theft to police.) ICBC is introducing a better system which will, once a fraud claim is confirmed, flag a person's name as the victim of identity theft and put a hold status on the driver's licence. That means anyone using the licence for an ICBC transaction, such as renewing insurance, will have to speak to the provincial ICBC office and answer some personal questions about the person whose name is on the card. "There would be very unique questions about her that [the impersonator] would not be able to answer," Best said. "They told me [McAteer] sounds like a prime candidate to be incorporated into this program... I know that she's young, we want to sort it out for her as soon as we can because we don't want it to drag on and affect her claims history in the future." McAteer, now 20, has learned her lesson and only carries a minimal amount of identification in her wallet. But she is still terrified her impersonator will continue to haunt her until police make an arrest, and there is no indication that will happen any time soon. "It's just the most frustrating feeling in the entire world knowing everyone is blaming you for something bad you haven't done," she said. "It's been hell." The Vancouver Sun 2006 Copyright 2006 CanWest Interactive, a division of CanWest MediaWorks Publications, Inc.. All rights reserved.