Tax and Spend Patricia King paid more than just her taxes this year at H&R Block.

Patricia King paid more than just her taxes this year at H&R Block.

On March 18, Patricia King, a self-employed health-policy consultant in the District, embarked on what has become an annual springtime ritual for more than 19 million people across the country: She took her taxes to H&R Block.

It was a simple exercise. She arrived at the company's 1701 K St. NW location with all her forms and finished up a few hours later. Her filing was sent electronically to the Internal Revenue Service, and, just like that, the dreaded rite of passage was over--or so she thought.

The following evening, King got a call from MBNA America Bank, the issuer of the new Visa card she had just used to pay H&R Block for its services. A customer-service agent was on the line, calling to confirm that King had requested a credit-line increase to permit the purchase of more than $2,000 in computer equipment.

When King told the operator that she had had nothing to do with the request, the MBNA agent informed her that an individual claiming to be her was holding on another line. To King's shock, the female caller, according to MBNA, had provided King's home address, work history, and Social Security number to the bank in the hope of proving she was King.

By the time the MBNA agent got back on the line with King's impersonator, she had hung up, King says. But plenty of damage had already been done. According to King, the MBNA Visa card she had barely used had racked up more than $5,000 in unauthorized charges in the previous 24 hours, including several thousand dollars' worth of computers and electronic equipment from Dell and Compaq. And while King was on the phone with MBNA that night, the card was used again--this time, for a $100 lingerie purchase from the Frederick's of Hollywood catalog.

"I knew that it was the beginning of a nightmare," King says. "I had no idea how someone could have gotten my Social Security number, much less all that other personal information about me. I just was flabbergasted."

It didn't take much sleuthing to figure out what had happened. The only time King had used the card in the previous three months was to pay H&R Block, she says. Furthermore, she had given the firm other details critical to an identity thief, including her Social Security number and employment forms. When King called to alert the firm about what had happened, she was treated like an average taxpayer.

"The manager didn't seem surprised at all," King says. "He basically admitted that it had happened there and told me that something similar had happened at another H&R Block in the city a few months ago."

Indeed, Bill Southern, a district manager in H&R Block's Washington, D.C., office, confirms that the company had investigated a similar theft at a D.C. franchise last November. Although he declined to comment on the specifics of King's case and directed most questions to the company's main headquarters, Southern says the case of identity theft is nothing new for the franchise, especially not in D.C.

"This really is a nonstory," Southern says. "This has happened at H&R Blocks across the country, not to mention retail stores and other outlets where employees come into contact with a client's personal information. In this case, we are doing the best we can to investigate and prevent this from happening again."

That's too late to help King. Although she was able to negate most of the unauthorized charges on her Visa, King continues to discover how quickly an entire credit history can be ruined. Though she filed a fraud alert with the three major credit bureaus in the country, King says that her Social Security number and credit information have been used to apply for several loans in the past month.

"When the mail comes, I literally shake when I go to open it, because I am not sure when the other shoe will drop," King says. "This is worse than anyone can ever imagine."

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC) reports that District residents have filed more complaints per capita about identity theft than any other state in the country. For every 100,000 residents, the city reported 77 cases of identity theft to the FTC in 2001. California reported 45 cases per 100,000 residents, and Nevada 41 cases per 100,000; city-to-city comparisons are not available.

Credit-card abuse is the most common form of identity fraud, the FTC reports, as is widely reflected in the latest statistics from the industry. Visa and Mastercard have reported that overall fraud losses rose from $700 million in 1996 to more than $1 billion in 2000.

The FTC's vigilance on identity theft hasn't done much to snare the free-lunchers. The feds concede that very few people who steal identities ever get caught--a fact that is hardly surprising to King, who says she initially had trouble filing a police report about her theft.

"At first, a detective told me that because I was able to block some of the charges on my card, that I hadn't really incurred many financial damages and that he really couldn't help me," King says. "He said that the most he could do was take a courtesy report, which I guess is just him listening and pretending to care what I am saying. It was just ridiculous."

Or maybe it was business as usual. According to Officer Sheldon Hargrove of the Financial Crimes Unit at the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD), the department does not investigate identity-theft cases at the behest of aggrieved consumers.

"We get involved at the request of a credit-card company or the business that has been subject to fraud," Hargrove says. "If someone has not incurred financial damages, we direct them to file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission."

The MPD also will not investigate the case of a stolen Social Security number unless its fraudulent use caused someone financial harm, Hargrove says. When there are no financial damages, callers are directed to the Secret Service, which is charged with investigating such cases.

"It's a little confusing," Hargrove admits.

True to their policy, District police later snooped into the King case after getting an alert from MBNA. At King's request, Dell and other companies where King's credit card was used have provided detectives information on where the goods were to be shipped. Although the companies have blocked that information from King, claiming privacy laws, King says that the police have told her that all of the purchases were to be sent to the same address in the District.

At the same time, H&R Block has launched its own investigation into the mishap. According to Southern, the company has placed an employee on leave, pending the outcome of an internal investigation. The company, he says, is also cooperating with the MPD's investigation. But as to what H&R Block is doing to prevent a repeat of the identity theft, Southern can offer little in the way of specifics.

"Our customers are our highest priority, and we are undertaking security methods to make sure their trust in us isn't compromised," Southern says.

King, meanwhile, is considering legal action against H&R Block. She also has joined a support group for victims of identity theft, though so far, it has provided little comfort.

"You just never imagine something like this happening to you," King says. "I know this will never be over for me, but I am just hoping to prevent it from happening to someone else." CP

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