07/19/07 — Thieves capture license numbers, leave resident with check problems

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Thieves capture license numbers, leave resident with check problems

By Anessa Myers
Published in News on July 19, 2007 1:45 PM

Helen Harwood's trip to a local department store began just like any other Sunday shopping jaunt.

But when she and her husband got to the register that day to pay for their purchases, the check reader, which verifies an account's viability, rejected her check.

Five bogus checks later, Mrs. Harwood, 65, and her husband, Clifford, 68, both of Pikeville, knew they were victims of identity theft.

And that began the nightmare of trying to catch the criminals and to repair her account's good standing, Mrs. Harwood said.

They found out that the criminals had one of their driver's license numbers. That identification, along with the forged checks, made it easy for the thieves to present the checks as legal tender.

And that has caused stress for the Harwoods.

"I don't think people have had this particular problem before. But it is still a crime, and people should know about it," she said. "It's so embarrassing knowing you have good credit but not knowing when your checks will work and when they won't."

Four of the stolen checks were used at Lowe's Home Improvement Warehouse in Fayetteville, while one was used at Kmart. Somehow obtaining the numbers from the Harwoods' driver's licenses, an unknown person has been able to purchase numerous items at these stores.

The only good news is that the money has not been removed from the account, little consolation for the Harwoods.

"It's not our account they messed with. It's our name," she said.

The bogus checks state include the logo from Washington Mutual Bank -- a bank at which the Harwoods have never had an account.

And to make matters even more complicated, the problem has interfered with the Harwoods' charity work.

Mrs. Harwood founded Pennies from Angels, a non-profit organization that helps cancer patients pay for food, rent, utilities and co-pays for medication. While trying to purchase medication for these patients, she ran into a problem. Her check was again denied because her driver's license number had been flagged.

She went home and called the bank's toll-free number to find out if her personal checks were approved for use. But, when she returned to the pharmacy, she had the same problem, only this time, with her Pennies from Angels account.

Mrs. Harwood contacted three different police departments before one suggested she file a police report.

"Goldsboro Police Department was the only one that took me seriously," she said.

She started with the Wilson Police Department and continued to the Fayetteville police until the Goldsboro Police Department requested she take the report to the Pikeville Police Department to file.

"People kept telling me that it's not a crime what these people are doing," she said, "but do you know what I say to that? It's criminal. It's illegal to use someone's license number, so it is a crime."

Mrs. Harwood contacted North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper. Last November, he was the keynote speaker at Scam Jam at Wayne Center where he explained ways to protect people from and to stop identity theft.

Cooper's office gave her no suggestions on how to handle her problem.

"At this point, I hadn't gotten a clear answer from anybody on what to do," she said.

Jennifer Canada, assistant public information officer at the North Carolina Department of Justice and Cooper's spokesperson, said Mrs. Harwood's case was "not typically considered part of identity theft".

Therefore, she said, "our office does not take care of things like that."

Finally, Mrs. Harwood received advice.

"One of the police departments gave me a suggestion to change my license number, but we shouldn't have to do all this. We aren't the criminals," she said.

She also does not want to change her payment patterns.

The Harwoods are accustomed to writing checks for personal use as well as for their non-profit organization "just to keep things in check" instead of using a debit card.

"(A check) is an instant receipt for me, and I thought that it was a better way to stay protected," Mrs. Harwood said. "But, I guess not."

Now, the only way they can get money is to go to their bank to cash checks.

"We are honest people," Mrs. Harwood said. "We work hard, and we don't want anything that doesn't belong to us. We are the ones paying for this. I'm so upset over this whole thing."

Mrs. Harwood hopes to help others avoid the problems she has had.

"People need to be aware that all anyone needs is your (driver's) license number. (Security measures) need to go back to where you have to show the cashier your license with your picture, not just have the numbers. Anybody can get those."