James Guillaume did not spend $45 at Soul Food Express.

He didn’t charge $315 at Target, nor did he open and ignore accounts with Mobil, JC Penney, Prudential Bank, Exxon or MBNA.

Someone got ahold of his Social Security number and a preapproved credit card application, assumed his name and went to town.

That was 10 years ago, and it’s taken almost as long for Guillaume and his wife, Michelle, of Farmington, to untangle the crime and clear their names.

A collection agency is still after that Target debt – now $1,015 with interest and fees.

Then there’s Kenneth J. Cox of Auburn, who got increasingly ornery calls twice a week for two years from a Utah attorney’s office doggedly pursuing the $116 Cox did not spend at a Southern department store.

The man who wrote the bad check in Cox’s name flashed a fake Maine driver’s license.

Lori Hutchinson of Jay recently asked her postmaster and town manager to vouch for her whereabouts during the summer of 2002 after she discovered someone used her name and Social Security number in Florida to rack up a $258 Bell South phone bill.

“I think that’s the most interesting thing – trying to prove your existence,” she said.

Guillaume, Cox and Hutchinson are three of untold hundreds of Mainers who’ve had their identities taken over. The methods are many – stolen credit card numbers the most common. And while the results can mean thousands of dollars in unjustified bills and charges, the greater cost is often the migraine of trying to get undeserved bad marks off your credit rating and creditors off your back.

More than 420 Maine residents told the Federal Trade Commission that someone stole and used their name or vital information last year.

The figure, up 20 percent from 2003, is lower than the actual number, says Will Lund, director of the Maine Office of Consumer Credit Regulation. There’s little incentive for victims to report the fraud to the FTC because the agency only tallies complaints, it doesn’t investigate them.

No one agency in Maine keeps comprehensive, statewide numbers on complaints of identity theft.

Yet at a recent public hearing on a bill to strengthen fraud protection in Maine, Sen. Lynn Bromley, D-Cumberland, called it a “burgeoning, escalating crisis.”

It’s a crime that can happen to almost anyone. When it does, on average, people don’t find out until 14 months after the fact, according to the U.S. Department of Justice

There are plenty of ways consumers can protect themselves, said Kevin Surette of Litchfield, president of the Maine Licensed Private Investigators Association.

In his experience, “People don’t do anything unless they’re a victim, sadly enough.”

Layers of protection

Thieves hoping to steal your identity have a host of sources to pick from. Court houses, town offices and city halls are teeming with personal, accessible information that can contain birth dates and Social Security numbers.

Voter registration records. Tax records. Home mortgage amounts. Arrests or court actions.

Consumers don’t have control over that data, and in some instances, far less is needed to assume someone’s identity.

To pass bad checks in South Carolina, North Carolina and Virginia last summer, all one thief used was homemade checks that carried a Lewiston woman’s name, her misspelled address and a fictional bank.

The woman, who declined to be identified for this story, ended up on Wal-Mart’s bad check watch-list. When she was notified of her status by a collection agency, the woman filed a police report, compared her signature to the thief’s in front of an officer and contacted the major credit bureaus.

“It’s over. Unfortunately, all of the stores it happened to have to charge slightly higher prices because of this,” she said.

In the last FTC survey, it found business and financial institutions counted $48 billion in identity theft losses in 2002. Consumers paid, out of pocket, another $5 billion.

People can control information going out of their homes, said Surette, through simple steps like shredding credit card solicitations and setting trash out the morning of pickup instead of the night before. (See box for tips.)

“Security is layers, like winter clothing,” he said. “Everything you do eliminates another” way a thief can get to you.

Of those self-reported incidents in Maine, 40 percent involved credit card fraud – unauthorized use of someone else’s credit card numbers or creating a new account with stolen information. Next most common was phone and utilities, using someone’s identity to obtain service, followed by bank fraud, stealing money out of someone’s account.

Assistant Attorney General Leanne Robbin and Lund said their offices hear more often from people who believe information is being misused by a family member, estranged spouse or former roommate than by an anonymous stranger.

“It is the Internet hacker case that gets a lot of publicity,” Lund said.

Consumer protection laws here generally protect consumers if crimes are reported as soon as they’re discovered, he said. They’re not held liable for the debt. If you wait to report it, the onus falls on you.

Lund is pushing for Maine to adopt a new law that would let consumers place “security freezes” on their credit reports. Almost anyone, anywhere trying to access the information – most frequently potential creditors, landlords or employers – would be met with a blank, blue screen.

The freeze-out would make it nearly impossible for an impostor to open a new credit card account, for instance, because the card company could not access the necessary credit information.

Victims of identity theft could freeze and unfreeze information for free, under the law, allowing select people access to the information for a certain period of time. Non-victims could pay $8 to do that.

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A spokesman for the consumer reporting industry cautioned against the bill last month, saying it could hurt consumers in “genuine credit emergencies” – leaking roof, burst water main – or “spontaneous credit” situations – applying for a department store card on the spot to take advantage of savings.

‘Don’t pay for someone else’s scheme’

Kenneth J. Cox, an Auburn retiree, discovered in 2002 that someone had written four checks under his name in Myrtle Beach, totaling under $400.

He notified each company, the FTC, credit bureaus and the Attorney General’s Office, and for three of the four checks, that’s all it took.

Belk, a Southern department store, passed the debt onto a Utah lawyer’s office for collection.

Call after call, Cox flatly refused to pay. When that didn’t work, one Sunday night he phoned the company’s automated voice mail and picked a name at random, attorney Mr. Moody, and left a message.

“‘Mr. Moody, I did not cash those checks.’ At first I was very nice,” Cox said. “I would say, ‘You know, this is harassment.’ Each time I gave him a new message I would try to be a little stronger.”

They kept calling. So his messages kept coming, about 15 in all. He also left messages for the lawyer’s co-workers, saying, “I’ve already taken this to Mr. Moody …”

“I could see him in my mind, I could see Mr. Moody furious,” Cox said.

Eventually, it worked.

“People that have been violated, they have so many options. They don’t have to pay their hard-earned money because somebody somewhere embarked on a scheme,” Cox said.

He considers himself more of a bystander of identity theft than a victim. Victimhood, Cox said, implies some sort of guilt: “I’m only going to be the victim if I allow myself to be.”

The Guillaumes’ experience – their thief opened 10 accounts and was denied others – didn’t hurt their financial standing, but it was only two years ago that their credit report cleared up.

Had that thief not presented a badly forged bank statement as proof of his identity- raising suspicions of a would-be lender – his spree would likely have gone unchecked for years, until a collection agency came calling for an overdue bill or the couple went for a car loan and got the bad news.

Michelle Guillaume now reviews the family’s credit report quarterly to make sure no accounts have opened to their surprise.

She thinks someone got her husband’s information through mail delivered to an old address in Dallas.

She assumed their undeserved $1,015 Target bill was taken care of, until a collection agency letter last August demanding 50 percent immediately or payments for the rest. A follow-up phone call in October ended with the debt collector calling her a liar and a crook, she said.

“I was in tears just about. They get really nasty,” she said. He threatened to dock her husband’s wages. They can’t, it’s a bluff.

“I didn’t do this. Jim didn’t do this. But it’s our responsibility to prove we didn’t,” Michelle said. “It was such a learning experience.”

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