"Mask", via Roman Barelko, Thinkstock.
"Mask", via Roman Barelko, Thinkstock.
“Mask”, via Roman Barelko, Thinkstock.

For those who say that identity theft isn’t a big deal, that it can generally be resolved by making a few phone calls to banks and credit card companies when your credit card is compromised or new accounts opened in your name, to quote Rod Serling, “Submitted for your consideration” the case of a Florida grandfather of nine, Lawrence E. Smith.

ABC News‘ Jessica Hopper reports that Mr. Smith filed for a $704 tax refund in 2004, which never came. Instead, it was sent to California to pay for a fraud charge he never knew existed. He suddenly had a very uneasy feeling and subsequently learned that in 2001, he was ticketed for driving a purple Camaro (imagine the shock of learning that someone accused you of driving a purple vehicle) too fast. In 2006 he was arrested and served 8 days in jail, charged with a crime he hadn’t committed. He has been billed over $300,000 by Medicare, haunted by creditors and almost had his long-standing (40 years) driver’s license suspended in Florida over a bill from the California Highway Patrol for a vehicular offenses he couldn’t have committed because he wasn’t there.

Joseph Kidd was arrested and fingerprinted in California for an “unspecified, non-violent crime” in 1993 under the alias “Lawrence E. Smith.” On that day, the real Lawrence E. Smith, who lives in Lehigh Acres, Fla., officially became a resident of the identity theft Twilight Zone.

Reports show that Kidd went so far as to acquire a birth certificate, marriage license and a driver’s license in the victim’s name. This isn’t a simple case of identity theft, it’s an identity takeover. Using Smith as his alias, Kidd even got married in 2007.

In July of 2006, there was a nationwide manhunt for Kidd, who had violated his parole and was hiding in plain sight under the name “Lawrence E. Smith.” Florida police apparently thought the real Larry Smith was their man and booked him into an Orlando jail.

Smith has no recollection of ever meeting Joe Kidd and is haunted by the question of why he won the Kidd identity lottery. “I had no idea what was going on. I kept telling them it wasn’t me,” Smith, 67, told ABC News. “This one police officer in the prison said, ‘This prison is full of people that didn’t do it’ and that was the end of it,” Smith said.

Smith’s wife, panicked and worried that at any moment her husband would be extradited to California, got involved and began calling authorities to try and free her husband. “I spent eight days in jail in 2006 and my wife was on the phone 24-7 saying that it’s not me,” Smith told ABC News. Smith’s wife pulled records of her husband’s paycheck stubs where he was working when the crimes occurred, proving that it would have been physically impossible for him to be in two places at once.

Luckily, the Smiths were able to convince Florida authorities that he wasn’t the Larry Smith they sought. Police later found Kidd in Arkansas where he was then extradited to California.

Unfortunately for Larry Smith, law enforcement officials in California botched the arrest and instead of making things right and correcting the error, rebooked Kidd as “Lawrence E. Smith.” Kidd served time in prison for his parole violation and when released, he was given a parole ID card with – are you ready for this one? – Lawrence E. Smith’s name on it.

In an interview, Detective Jim Hudson of California’s Placer County Sheriff’s Department admitted to his frustration with this case. “We get into law enforcement to do the right thing and when I see people who had the opportunity to do the right thing and took the short way out, it’s frustrating.”

Hudson finally nailed the right guy this past week when he received a tip from Placer County Welfare investigators that Kidd allegedly applied for welfare benefits as Lawrence E. Smith.

Now that Kidd is in custody, Smith, who has three children and nine grandchildren, said he can finally rest a little easier. But undoing the damage that has been done will take a great deal of time.

Memo to disbelievers: “I’ve been doing this for 15 years and I’ve never seen such a successful takeover of a man’s identity, just ruin a man’s life,” detective Hudson said.

So any time anyone tells you that identity theft is preventable, think of this example. The best we can do is minimize our risk of exposure, purchase tools and engage in practices that detect a personal compromise as early in the process as possible. Early detection is crucial in order to contain the damage and have a damage control program in place to limit the personal, emotional and financial upheaval. Follow these tips to minimize your exposure to identity theft:

  • Never carry a Social Security card.
  • Limit the number of credit and debit cards in your purse or wallet.
  • Never provide too much personal information to people you don’t know, either in person, on the phone, or online.
  • Secure your computer with the most sophisticated firewall, security software and malware protection devices and update them frequently.
  • Use strong passwords, change them frequently and don’t share passwords among financial, email and social networking sites.
  • Check your credit card and bank account statements online daily.
  • Contact your insurance agent, bank, credit union, employer’s human resource department or university administration to find out whether they offer assistance as part of your perks, or if you need to retain the services of a third party provider.

The service may be free, require minimal expense as an endorsement to a homeowner or auto owner policey, or be somewhat more expensive as a stand-alone product. As you evaluate the expense, ask yourself one question: what is 17 years of my life worth to me?

Originally posted at Credit.com.