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IDENTITY THEFT, INC.
A Wild Ride with the World's #1 Identity Thief
By Glenn Hastings, Richard Marcus
Red Wheel/Weiser, LLCCopyright © 2006 Glenn Hastings and Richard Marcus
All rights reserved.
Almost the end
Chicago, Illinois, 1998
ON THE FATEFUL SPRING AFTERNOON IN 1998 THAT MY PARTNER Bones entered the Sears Tower in Chicago, it was unusually cool and windy. The collar of his camelhair overcoat was snugly turned up to ward off the gusts shrieking through the glass panes in the revolving door. Once he stepped into the lobby and felt a rush of warm air, Bones exhaled with relief and put his collar down.
In the elevator, he seemed indistinguishable from the pack of businessmen who filled the car. Like them, he was coming back from lunch. Like them, he had matters urgent and not so urgent waiting on his desk. Like them, he had the latest shrinking version of a cell phone in his pocket. And like them, he had never heard the term "identity theft," although he was as guilty as sin of it.
Passengers trickled out of the elevator in twos and threes as the car hiked up the building's core. Bones recollected a few specific affairs needing his attention before the day was out, then nodded goodbye as the lit golden numeral above the doors indicated his stop.
On the twenty-second floor was headquarters. Each time during the past few years that Bones pushed through the double glass doors and swept into the empty reception area, he felt proud and simultaneously had the urge to laugh. Engraved on the glass in handsome silver-trimmed letters was IDT CORP. To everyone's knowledge but ours, including the State of Illinois and the Internal Revenue Service, IDT stood for "International Design Technology." We, of course, knew better. The real company name was "Identity Theft, Inc."
Bones passed through the anteroom and continued on to his inner office. He removed his coat, tossed it on the sofa across from his desk, and comfortably ensconced himself in his black leather swivel chair. He slid over to face the glass façade overlooking Chicago and looked down on the Windy City as if he owned it.
The next load of men pouring into that elevator car in the lobby was quite distinguishable from the one that had preceded it. They did not wear gray business suits and polished black shoes. Instead they wore blue windbreakers and stonewashed jeans. Most had on sneakers or rubber-soled shoes. Emblazoned in distinct yellow on the backs of half these men's windbreakers were the block letters FBI. The second half of the rush sported the words US SECRET SERVICE in the same yellow lettering.
For the people coming and going inside the lobby, confusion—if not curiosity—reigned. Certainly this was not a football game between the FBI and Secret Service. Nor was it some kind of training drill. What probably aroused marvel amongst the onlookers was the presence of the Secret Service team. Was the president in town? What was he doing in the Sears Building?
Or perhaps it was some other dignitary, American or foreign born, who commanded the protection of the enforcement arm of the United States Treasury Department.
There was only one person in the entire tower who could know why that joint team of federal agencies was currently storming into the elevator. That person was Bones, whose real name at birth was nearly as distant as that birth itself. But for the moment, the last thing on his mind was that the faint ding outside in the corridor signaled the FBI and Secret Service agents' arrival within a hundred feet of IDT, Inc.'s front doors.
When they crashed through the glass, knocking the doors off their hinges and square into the reception area, Bones knew it was not the building's window cleaners entering the suite by mistake. His angular face, sheathed in a thick crop of salt-and-pepper hair, showed surprise even if he didn't move in his chair.
He heard a joint cacophony of "FBI!" and "US Secret Service!" Everyone who'd crashed inside was now in his office barking at him not to move. He was told to stay in his chair, where he'd been parked so tranquilly just moments before. When he felt his butt sink deeper into the plush cushion, Bones registered that a clothesline of handguns was pointed his way.
There were twenty men wearing blue-and-yellow windbreakers standing menacingly in his office. The man closest to him on the other side of the desk wearing the insignia of the Secret Service spoke in a calm, even voice as soon as the shouting had finished.
"Who are you?" he asked Bones in a tone suggesting he was face to face with a creature from outer space.
Bones hesitated a second as his eyes scanned the eager clan of agents. "I'm Bones," he responded at length.
The lead Secret Service agent exchanged a look with the lead FBI agent. They both focused back on Bones.
The FBI head said, with a strange grimace that conveyed bewilderment, "Bones? Do you have a real name?"
Bones nodded, then somehow broke into a laugh. "I have about a thousand real names."
There was no second look between the agents. "Do you have a real name for which you have real photo ID?" asked the FBI man.
Bones was not stumped by the question. "I have real photo ID for all thousand names," he said simply. "Which one would you like?"
The FBI and Secret Service heads exchanged another glance. The Secret Service man puckered his lips, then said ominously, "Looks like this is gonna be a long investigation."
A land of enchantment
Taos, New Mexico, 1987-1988
IT ALL STARTED IN THE LEAST LIKELY OF VENUES. BUT BEFORE I got there, I was living in San Diego with my girlfriend, Robin, an artsy chick from Manhattan with big-time sex appeal who, despite her protestations to the contrary, was more into cash than artwork. At the time, I was between scams, hanging around the beaches doing basically nothing. Robin was usually off to this art class or that one when she wasn't hanging out with me.
Robin, by nature, was quite an exuberant lady. One typically sunny and warm Southern California day, she toppled over me in a burst of that excitement as I lay tanning on Mission Beach.
"I have a whim," she said. "Will you fancy it?"
"How much does it cost?" I said with not an iota of doubt.
"You ever hear of Taos, New Mexico?" By this time she had gotten off me and was sitting cross-legged on the edge of my towel. In fact, it wasn't really cross-legged but one of those yoga positions with one leg folded and crunched atop the other. One of those semi-contortionist poses I could never twist into.
"Taos? You mean like 'Laos'?" Obviously I'd never heard of the place. I remembered Laos because I'd connected it to Vietnam during my draft resistance days.
Robin laughed. "It's really a cool place. It's got great Southwestern art, its own Indian reservation and a beautiful gorge. Some people call the gorge Taos Canyon." She added that some people jumped.
"Sounds like you've been there."
"I had an artist friend from Brooklyn named Eddie who took me there. Stayed a week and fell in love with the landscape. I think Eddie never left it."
I was thinking that Taos's landscape and a Brooklyn native wasn't a good mix, even though I had been to neither.
"And," Robin went on, "since you like skiing you'd be enthralled there."
This got my attention.
"It just so happens that Taos Mountain is one of the best ski resorts in the country. It's got terrain as good as Aspen or Vail, without the crowds. Not many people know of it."
I guess the visions of steep slopes and virgin snow was all it took. I was getting kind of sick of watching the surfers, so a trek to Taos Mountain sounded appetizing if not adventurous. Within a week we were on our way.
Taos really was the land of enchantment. It was situated seventy or so miles to the north of Santa Fe and, as Robin had said, was known for its magnificent Southwestern art museums, Navajo rugs and Taos Pueblo, its Native American reservation. She'd repeated on the drive through New Mexico that Taos was a land of great spiritual mystery and that many great writers had lived or were still living there. She mentioned D.H. Lawrence and the current novelist Tony Hillerman. This was true, although I later found out that there were more fugitives packed into Taos's crevices and canyons than writers sitting in its tea and coffee shops. Moreover, the only things I was capable of writing were bad checks and forged signatures.
We would end up spending a year in Taos, and I never regretted it. And that's apart from what I'd unexpectedly learned there about credit card fraud, which I later applied to identity theft. Taos is beautiful and indeed spiritual, even if the only spiritual inspiration I inhaled in its serenity was how to get rich.
We rented a spacious adobe house with vigas, those smooth wooden beams running across the ceilings so distinctive to New Mexican homes. It sat on a greatwide-open plain across a gravel road from the regionally famous Ellis Travers Museum. Besides the museum and our house, there were no manmade structures of any kind in any direction for two miles. The closest one to us was a gas station where the gravel road finally met up with a paved county thoroughfare.
The landscape surrounding our house was spectacular. All around were flat bushy fields that suddenly rushed up against jagged mountains with snow-capped peaks. Off to one side was Taos Canyon, a starkly impressive rocky gorge with a bridge spanning its expanse through the middle. Some of those writers Robin had mentioned, apparently not very happy with their manuscripts, had taken the leap off the bridge over the years.
Closer to the house we had the daytime company of cattle, prairie dogs and snakes, most of them poisonous. Nighttime brought coyotes, raccoons and other critters difficult to identify because it was often too dark to see. Occasionally a lone wolf, stranded by its pack, drifted across the prairie. Once I even caught sight of a big brown bear. The next day I bought a pair of Siberian huskies and let them grow up outside the house to guard the place.
I grew to like my new home. I fancied my séjour in New Mexico would be more of a cultural and spiritual awakening than anything else. Certainly nothing related to my past illicit activities. Soon I likened myself to a professor on sabbatical in a foreign land. Perhaps, I thought with a touch of self-mockery, I'd even experience a cleansing of my soul and then get on with some kind of more conventional life.
Robin was very much into Southwestern and Native American culture. She was especially fascinated by the art and the dazzling Navajo rugs with their beautiful color patterns. She greatly appreciated the two, sometimes three generations of Navajo families it took to yarn a single rug. I, too, would become enamored of these rugs, but for entirely different reasons, ones having nothing to do with aesthetics.
Before our year in Taos was out, we were out of money. Somebody had to get a job quickly. It was quite natural that the first place Robin went looking for work was across the street at the Ellis Travers Museum. They hired her right away. She was good-looking, well-educated and gave the place a touch of East Coast sophistication, which it needed because a high percentage of the tourists visiting its exhibits and buying up merchandise in the souvenir shop came from big eastern cities. She started as the cashier in the souvenir shop.
I looked for work, too. I found out quickly that if you weren't into Southwestern art and culture and wanted to find some other kind of job in Taos, New Mexico, not many types of employment were available. You had your choice between becoming a waiter and a hotel clerk. The restaurants weren't hiring so I ended up as the night front desk clerk at the Hopi Lodge, a 150-room motel complex that was proudly called a hotel by its staff. It was sprawled over a dozen acres near Taos Plaza, the small Old West-flavored town square filled with souvenir shops, coffee shops and, of course, a chain (but not fast-food) restaurant. Those were grouped along the highway on the outskirts of town.
I came in at midnight and worked until eight the following morning. There wasn't much going on during those hours, so I spent most of the time lounging around the front desk bullshitting with the security guard, the only other employee working the premises on graveyard shift. He was a Taos Indian with the typically Mexican name of Raul Martinez. He was big and pudgy, and for some reason everyone called him Martinez instead of his given name. Even his wife, when she telephoned the front desk to speak with him, asked for "Martinez." And this was a bit odd because the most common family name among the Taos Indians was Martinez. There were seven employed on the Hopi Lodge's day shift, three more on swing.
After I'd been working the front desk for a week, the manager, who was usually leaving when I came on, asked if I could handle the daily night audit. I told him I didn't think it would be a problem. I had minored in accounting at UC Berkeley (majored in reefer), although I never worked a single day as an accountant. The thought of performing what I considered such a boring task never appealed to me, and besides, counting other people's money attracted me even less.
He agreed to add the audit to my job duties, which hadn't consisted of anything more than late check-ins, early checkouts and bullshitting with Martinez. Each night upon arrival I would find the day's room vouchers neatly stacked on my desk. There were also the checks from the bar and restaurant, which I had to tally as well. First everything had to be counted, then recounted and the figures posted to ledger sheets. Then I'd have to verify the cash totals and determine if any money was missing. Usually some was, but it was just a matter of cents. When the discrepancy was in the motel's favor, I threw the extra loose change in the drawer.
The one thing bar and restaurant checks had in common with hotel vouchers was that they were more often than not paid by credit cards. The imprints of the cards were attached to the vouchers. There were Visas, MasterCards, American Expresses, even Discovery and Diners Club cards. Everything under the plastic sun. At first I paid no special attention to the dozens of credit card vouchers I went through each night. I dutifully verified the numbers, ran the adding-machine tapes, posted the figures to the ledger and bullshitted with Martinez.
The first dishonest thing I did at the Hopi Lodge was instigated by Martinez. He told me about the lack of a consistent physical inventory being conducted in the restaurant's kitchen. He even admitted that he occasionally sneaked inside it with his flashlight and pilfered a few steaks from the freezer. He'd been doing so for years.
One late night, at three a.m., I asked to borrow his flashlight. I had just finished the audit and become rather hungry. I figured I'd sneak into the kitchen and help myself to a melon or whatever fruit happened to be in the refrigerator. Martinez, in his blue security uniform, smiled at me with a twinkle in his eye and said I didn't need his flashlight. There was one deep inside the bottom drawer behind my counter.
I found the flashlight and told him to keep an eye on the front desk while I took a little tour of the kitchen. There was always the small chance of a check-in at that hour, or even worse, the surprise visit of the Hopi Lodge's owner, a mean old widow from Amarillo who, I'd been told, every so often arrived unannounced in the middle of the night to check on her hotel employees. It wouldn't be great for me if she arrived one night to find the front desk devoid of a clerk or, worse, if she found that clerk skulking around the darkness of the kitchen with a flashlight in hand.
Excerpted from IDENTITY THEFT, INC. by Glenn Hastings, Richard Marcus. Copyright © 2006 Glenn Hastings and Richard Marcus. Excerpted by permission of Red Wheel/Weiser, LLC.
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