Agency battles identity theft

State's attorney's office received $50,000 grant

150 victims helped since April

Crime often committed by relatives, officials say

October 27, 2003|By Allison Klein | Allison Klein,SUN STAFF

It has been nearly a year of indignity and rejection for Terrance Summers, a former correctional officer whose identity had been stolen by his drug-dealing cousin, making it nearly impossible for him to find a job.

After pleading with prosecutors and anyone else who might listen, Summers finally found someone to help clear his name.

"I just had to walk straight, be a man about it and maintain my innocence," said Summers, 42, who delivered pizzas for a year because he couldn't find other employment. "I'll tell you, though, it wasn't easy."

Scores of other people in Baltimore face complex problems because of identity theft -- often committed by a relative -- and many are turning to the office of State's Attorney Patricia C. Jessamy to help untangle the mess.

The agency received a $50,000 grant from the Governor's Office of Crime Control and Prevention to deal with the problem and hired Yakov Bashyrov, a law student who estimates that he has helped 150 victims since beginning work in April.

Each week, he receives about 10 walk-in clients and takes about 20 calls from new victims at his office in the John R. Hargrove Sr. District Court Building in Brooklyn.

"So many people have an open warrant against them and they don't know it," said Bashyrov, who works full time for the state's attorney's office while going to school at the University of Maryland School of Law. "When people do come in, they are angry. I don't deal with a happy crowd."

People may not know they are victims until a prospective employer runs a background check, a police officer stops their car or they are served with an arrest warrant.

Then they discover how hard it is to purge a criminal record from the criminal justice system computers. In the case of a felony conviction, a judge must sign an order.

Lives reclaimed

Compounding the problem for many victims is that relatives often are the culprits.

"I really feel for these people," said Kimberly Farrell, division chief for District Court in the state's attorney's office. "It's hard to see how their lives are scrambled by a family member or a stranger who stole their wallet."

If a victim's story checks out, prosecutors will write a letter to an employer, insurance company or anyone else who needs to understand the situation. If an arrest warrant has been issued erroneously, prosecutors can have it quashed.

"For the majority, it's somehow connected to a job," Farrell said. "It varies from, `you're fired right now unless you can explain this,' or `you have one week to explain this.'"

In the case of Summers, the former correctional officer, he decided to leave his job last year, fed up with bureaucracy and eager to start a new career. But he quickly found out he could not get work because prospective employers discovered drug felonies on his record.

The fact that his cousin Earl Anthony Thomas, who died in 1994, had committed the crimes did not solve his problem.

Local defense lawyer Darren Margolis read about his plight in The Sun, took his case pro bono, and helped clear Summers' name through a judge's order. Summers is now employed by an auto parts company and describes the job as "sweet."

Another victim

Another city man, Jackie Aquino, 36, has not been as lucky with his identity fraud problem. His brother, Alphonso Aquino, 32, is accused of stealing his name when he was charged in a car accident.

Soon after, Jackie Aquino found out he had been charged with several traffic violations and was dropped by his car insurance carrier. He began receiving medical bills that totaled more than $5,000.

After prosecutors wrote a letter to his car insurance company, he was able to get coverage again at almost the same rate. The bills, though, keep coming.

He and his brother have a court date next month to try to sort out the problem and make sure the right man is charged with the right violations. For now, Alphonso Aquino has been charged with identity fraud, court records show.

"He had no right to do what he did," Jackie Aquino said. "Now I have to deal with it."

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