Watch CBSN Live

Identity Theft Victims Speak Out

A Treasury Department summit Wednesday heard from people who lost not only their names, but money and reputations as well, to criminals who stole their identities and went on spending sprees in their names.

The meeting was the first-ever national conference on the emerging crime of identity theft.

Among those who attended were Darlene Zele, a Rhode Island hospital worker who was coming to terms with the death of her husband when someone stole her name, and Lt. Col. John Stevens, Jr., a physicist testing advanced weapons for the military in Maryland when an identity thief targeted him.

Identity thiefs use purloined personal data -- names, addresses and social security numbers -- to get credit cards, borrow money or make big-ticket purchases, then stick the unwitting victims with the bill.

The summit brought together government officials, business leaders, consumer groups and federal, state and local law enforcement agents to try to find ways to make life harder for identity thieves and easier for their victims.

"Identity theft is now a growing and major criminal threat,'' Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers told the meeting, noting the new, wired economy was making it easier for criminals to both get and misuse personal information.

"The problems that arise with new technology are real, and they cannot just be wished away,'' he said.

Victims of identity theft know that only too well. Most are totally unaware they have even become victims until the bills or loans run up in their names become overdue and the creditors and collection agencies come calling.

Though they do not have to bear the direct financial losses, they do face years of struggling to repair the havoc wrought on their credit records, and often battle to get mortgages, loans or even jobs of their own while they do so.

"It has been sheer hell, and I do mean hell,'' Zele said. ''At this point, after five years, it's still not over.''

Stevens, who first learned of the bad debts of $115,000 charged to him and his wife in 1997, estimates they have since dealt with 14 separate collection agencies and been assured their records have been completely cleared three times.

But the fraudulent charges, ranging from a Jeep Cherokee to a $2,000 diamond, just keep popping back up at the credit bureaus because some computer, somewhere, didn't get the memo.

This is like the trick candle that keeps relighting after you blow it out,'' he said.

In 1998, Congress made identity theft a federal crime carrying a maximum sentence of 15 years. Around 22 U.S. states also have laws on the books against the practice.

The Federal Trade Commission has created an identity theft clearing-house. Its phone number is 877-438-4338.

View CBS News In