In 2004, Luz Gonzalez filed her taxes and got her refund, just like she had done every year since becoming a permanent resident and getting a Social Security number at age 19. But three months later, she received a letter from the IRS accusing her of not reporting $23,000 of income and telling her she owed the government $4,000 in taxes and fines.
“When you get a letter from the IRS, it’s scary,” says Gonzalez, who quickly realized she was a victim of identity theft, most likely because she had lost her ID at a nightclub the year before.
Gonzalez called the IRS and told them someone else was using her identity to work. In turn, the agency told her to file a police report, fax it in, and the extra income and associated fines would be cleared from her record.
“But I was intrigued about who did it, I wanted to know,” she says.
She went to the Social Security Administration and found out that someone was using her identity to work at a nearby Taco Bell. What’s more, they had given an address, which was close to Gonzalez’s North Denver home.
“So I went,” she says, admitting it probably wasn’t the smartest idea at the time. When she got there, she says there were a lot of people hanging out but the woman using Gonzalez’s identity wasn’t at home. She assumes most of them were undocumented.
She told the guy who answered the door, “Look, I don’t want any problems, but I’m Luz Gonzalez and a girl in this house is using my information. Tell her to stop, because I already did a police report and I don’t know what’s going to happen. Just tell her to stop.’”
Then Gonzalez left and never tried to find the woman again.
“I’m an immigrant, so I do understand her. I was without a Social for many years so I know how it feels,” says Gonzalez, who is now a naturalized U.S. citizen. “A lot of people don’t know what it’s like to not have a Social and want to work.”
According to the most recent statistics available from the Federal Trade Commission’s Consumer Sentinel Data Book, Colorado ranks 13th in the nation for reported identity thefts, with a total of 6,051 reported in 2017. Boulder County alone had 442. Employment and tax-related fraud accounted for 27 percent of reports, second only to credit card fraud. While there are a variety of reasons why a person may use someone else’s identity to work, anything from tax evasion to a having a criminal record, “Anecdotally, it is more often someone who is undocumented,” says Hazel Heckers, victim assistance coordinator with the Colorado Bureau of Investigations (CBI) identity theft and fraud unit.
“I look at this as a casualty of our immigration policy in this country,” says Boulder County District Attorney Michael Dougherty. “There are people who commit identity theft because they just want to buy a new flat screen or buy a new car, and they are just out to defraud people. Then you have these cases, where someone is just trying to work and just trying to make a living here in this country. And I think those cases are really tragic.”
Proliferation of identity theft and fraud cases are at least in part due to increased access to personal information through technology, no longer bound by proximity and personal interaction. In short, identity theft has “become easier to commit,” Dougherty says. “Gone are the days when a guy has to approach a man in an alley with a knife saying, ‘Give me your wallet.’”
Online breaches in security hit an all time high in 2017, according to a report from Javelin Strategy & Research, which has been tracking identity theft since 2003. The report also states that, while credit card fraud and account takeovers continue to rise, Social Security breaches are now the most common form of identity theft for the first time, accounting for 35 percent of all cases in 2017.
As identity theft continues to grow nationwide, it severely impacts its victims, affecting everything from financial aid and student loans to credit scores and access to public benefits.
A majority of the victims CBI works with suffer the cancellation of benefits as a result of identity theft, Heckers says. Medicaid, disability, housing and SNAP benefits can all be canceled if someone’s reported income suddenly increases because someone else is using their Social Security number to work. While the majority of the time (Heckers estimates 75 percent) it’s one person fraudulently using one social security number, CBI has seen as many as 13 or 14 people using one number to work.
“It can really escalate for a victim into something that is not only disruptive in their life but can be really life-threatening for them,” Heckers says.
“If they are kicked out of housing and off of Medicaid, and let’s say they have a caregiver that comes to their home every day through Medicaid that helps them get up and get dressed and take their medications, maybe help them with their oxygen, and all of that is canceled, and their oxygen resource is canceled and their medical treatments are canceled and they can’t go to the pharmacy…
“You could see how it could kind of snowball.”
Additionally, the emotional and psychological impacts can have long-lasting effects on victims of identity theft, Heckers says. The victims CBI works with experience a range of emotions that are typical of any other type of victimization or trauma: depression, anger, anxiety, etc. Some people even start to suffer from insomnia or become suicidal after having their identity stolen.
“People who are victims of identity theft or fraud experience the same trauma reactions that people of any other crime do; they have been violated,” Heckers says. “It may not have been their physical person, but their core, their identity has been violated. They suffer consequences whether financial or other from what’s happened and it can be pretty devastating in their lives.”
Heckers and her team at CBI assist victims in correcting the record by working with the IRS, Social Security Administration, Colorado Department of Labor, law enforcement and other agencies, a process that can take anywhere from a week to six months or more.
“It has such a costly impact on victims,” Dougherty says. “Similarly for undocumented immigrants who are simply trying to work, it can be a felony offense and the consequences that that carries are pretty significant, especially when you consider our current immigration approach in this country. For example, the threat of deportation.”
Such is the case for Ingrid Encalada Latorre, who has been in sanctuary at the Unitarian Universalist Church of Boulder (UUCB) for more than a year, fighting a deportation order that is a result of a 2010 conviction for using falsified documents.
Latorre, who emigrated from Peru in 2000, spent her first few years in Colorado without necessary documents to get a job and getting paid under the table for her work. By 2003, she was tired of the instability that came with this kind of work, so when she heard she could just go to Denver and pay $100 for documents including a Social Security number, she began considering it.
“It was also a little bit scary because I didn’t know who these people were or what risks I was taking,” she says. “But as I started to ask more questions, everyone kept telling me that everyone is doing it so I thought if everyone is doing it maybe it’s not that much of a risk after all.”
Ingrid had a friend drive her to Denver in search of a guy her friends told her could help. She only had an approximate location and none of the phone numbers she was given ever worked. After driving around for awhile, Ingrid met up with a guy who took her photo and told her to come back in a couple of hours. When she returned, he had a green card and Social Security card ready for her.
“I knew it could either be a dead person, or a real one, or a made up one,” she says. “But the people you buy it from, they don’t tell you anything, they just tell you how much it is and if you want it and they leave the rest up to you.”
So Latorre bought the documents and immediately started working at a nursing home in Evergreen, despite how nervous she was to use them.
“They look fake, they don’t even look real but really the companies that are hiring you, they don’t care because who else are they going to hire? Who else is going to do these heavy jobs but us?” she says. Latorre started as a dishwasher, cleaning mountains of dirty dishes for the 120 residents at the facility. Although the work was extremely difficult and she often thought about quitting, she eventually settled in, moving her way up to assistant cook and then cook over the seven years she worked there.
“To have a consistent paycheck every two weeks gave me a lot of security and relief,” Latorre says. She was finally getting paid minimum wage, “which was more than before,” and she was eligible for worker benefits like overtime and workman’s comp.
Then in 2010, at 6 in the morning, she was arrested at work after the woman whose identity she was using reported it to law enforcement.
“I felt really bad and have since repented because this woman was needing government benefits. And that’s really not fair,” Latorre says. “If our positions had been switched and I was the one with the Social Security number, I would never want someone else to use it. I felt really bad about that.”
The arrest led to a felony charge, jail time, years of probation and thousands of dollars in restitution fines to both the government and the victim. It also alerted Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and Latorre has been fighting a deportation order for years as a result. She’s been in sanctuary at UUCB for more than a year, and in Denver and Fort Collins before that, in order to stay with her two U.S. citizen children. She’s petitioned the governor for a pardon in order to expunge her record and obtain some sort of legal status, but those requests have been denied, her most recent plea left unanswered before Gov. Hickenlooper left office this week.
Now, while in sanctuary, Latorre wants to help other immigrants to keep from making the same mistakes and suffering the same consequences she has endured. Through a new public service campaign, ¡No Mas Chuecos!, she’s enlisting help from people like Gonzalez and Dougherty, among others, to help spread the word and educate the immigrant community not only about the effects of identity theft on the victims but the possible repercussions for immigrants as well.
“There are actually victims behind these actions and there are actually people behind these numbers, and I want the community to understand that there are other ways to go about this,” Latorre says. “You can work with your communities, work with your governments and you don’t have to do what I did.”
A large part of the campaign is educating the immigrant community and connecting them with resources to avoid using falsified or stolen documents in order to work. It encourages people to seek legal help, apply for a Colorado driver’s license, which doesn’t require a Social Security number, or get an Individual Taxpayer Identification Number (ITIN) to file taxes.
“Until we solve the immigration problem in this country, we’re going to continue to have cases like this,” Dougherty says. “We have created this situation where people feel trapped into committing this act, and it’s a crime under Colorado law. Still I recognize they don’t have a lot of options. We need to do as much as we can to help immigrant communities understand what other means [are available to] obtain lawful employment.”
Identity theft “doesn’t have to [result in criminal charges], the victim does have a right, though, to press those charges,” Heckers says, adding that criminal charges in an identity theft case are fairly rare for a variety of reasons, including simply not being able to track down the offender after they’ve left a particular job or “sometimes they just stop using” the documents. Additionally, in Colorado at least, the prosecution has to prove that the person using the documents knew that they belonged to a real person.
Rarer still is finding the people who steal identities in the first place, then sell them on the street to immigrants.
“We always want to try to work up the chain to make sure that it’s not simply the person who wants to work that is being prosecuted but rather the individuals who are more aware of what’s happening and are trying to take advantage of people,” Dougherty says, although this can often be challenging or even impossible.
“I know that sometimes the person who is committing the crime is a victim as well,” Heckers admits.
Although she’s apologized publicly for using someone else’s identity to work, Latorre has been unable to talk with the victim in her case. But the new campaign is an attempt to rectify the harm she caused.
“It’s important for me to do my part to continue fixing the system and continue preventing more victims from being harmed from this,” she says.
Latorre is also working with the Longmont Community Justice Partnership (LCJP) in an effort to see how restorative justice could be used in identity theft cases, either as a way of mediating between victims and offenders or in lieu of criminal charges.
“A lot of the way our legal system works, it just looks at what somebody did that broke the law and how do we punish them because they broke the law,” says LCPJ executive director Kathleen McGoey. “Whereas restorative justice says how did the choice that led to the violation of the law affect human relationships and really focuses on what can be done for people, whether they are documented or not.”
LCPJ works with the Longmont Police Department. The most common cases the department refers to restorative justice involve vandalism, theft, trespassing, arson, burglary and sometimes harassment and assault.
In order for a case to qualify for restorative justice, two main criteria must be met: one, the offender has to take responsibility for the crime and acknowledge that it caused harm to others, and two, the victim has to be willing for the case to go through the restorative justice process and not press charges.
“It really is dependent on the person who’s experienced harm,” McGoey says. Restorative justice always looks at “meeting the needs of victims and making sure it doesn’t cause them additional harm.”
Although restorative justice can be an alternative to criminal charges in the case of identity theft, McGoey says, often the harm is substantial for a victim, with far-reaching consequences that the offender often can’t help repair.
LCJP has only seen a few cases of identity theft, and at least one such effort was successful. In that case, the victim’s Social Security number had been sold when he was a child and only after he became an adult did he find out about it. Both the victim and the offender went through a successful restorative justice process, McGoey says, without going into more specific details.
“In most restorative justice cases, the common need or request from a victim is to hear from the offender that they won’t ever do this again,” McGoey says. “The victim just often wants to hear the offender say, ‘I’ve learned from this, I see that there were consequences from my actions and I won’t ever put anyone else in the same position that I put you in.’”
It can be a powerful tool for all parties involved to sit in the same room and understand that there are actual people behind both the crime and the Social Security number.
“From my perspective, what can really be powerful about restorative justice for identity theft is just for the victim to sit across from the offender and see them as a human and for that offender to see the victim as a human,” McGoey says. “Often in these dialogues, it’s just the chance for them to meet and talk to each other that is the most transformative.”
Gonzalez for one doesn’t hold it against the woman who used her information to work at Taco Bell, empathizing with her need to work and support her family.
Gonzalez immigrated to Colorado from Los Mochis, Mexico, in 1988, her stepfather having received amnesty under President Ronald Reagan. But she didn’t get her green card right away, and by the time she was 16 she felt the constraints that come without having a Social Security number.
“It’s another life, when you have a Social,” she says. “It’s another life.”
Still, even if you are sympathetic to the offender’s motivations, it’s stressful to know that at any point someone could be using your identity. It happened again to Gonzalez in 2007. When she filled out the application for an apartment, the building management said she was already in their system, despite the fact that she had never previously lived there.
“Somebody has [my Social Security number] out there,” she says. “It’s scary,”