My name is Austin McInerny and I’m having an identity crisis. Not because I’m a 39-year-old father of two with a sudden panic about life being half over, but because the name I share with my late uncle and grandfather isn’t mine anymore. It belongs, along with my Social Security Number (SSN), to a stranger living in Apple Valley.
No, he’s not a distant relative. He’s the man who has used my SSN to buy cars and jewelry, open credit cards and bank accounts, and get various other lines of credit. I know this because he’s been doing it for a decade. Yes, you read that right — 10 years.
When people hear the words “identity theft” these days, they often think of data breaches or mysterious hackers stealing mass amounts of data from multinational retailers. We might imagine the elderly unwittingly handing over their personal information to long-lost relatives in Nigeria. Or we imagine hackers intercepting point-of-sale transactions from merchants with poor security and selling that information on the black market.
But my tormentor isn’t some faceless international criminal. My evil twin lives less than 20 miles from my family’s St. Paul home.
You might think it’s easier to confront an identity thief nowadays. After all, consumers are more aware of the problem than ever. Businesses warn us of the dangers and even advertise special services for customers who fall victim. Law enforcement agencies have entire departments devoted to fraud crimes.
Yet that guy in Apple Valley turns out to be as untouchable as a comic book supervillain. Even though I know his name. Even though I know where he lives. Even though I know where he works and have his last two driver’s license numbers. Even though I have his telephone number and know his birthday. Even though I have copies of credit applications he’s signed with my SSN on them.
The most recent flare-up came at the beginning of 2014 when my new employer tried to enroll me in the company’s health insurance plan. I was essentially rejected; we were told my application couldn’t be processed because someone was already enrolled under my SSN.
In the beginning, I didn’t think it would be difficult to prove who I am. I’m the type of person who still has his original Social Security card — I even laminated it to protect it. When I was 16. (Clearly I was nerdier at that age than I recall.) I’m the kind of person who can instantly provide paperwork for every important transaction of my life — it’s all filed and organized by date. My family calls me a hoarder, admiringly.
So I showed up to the St. Paul Police Department with inches-thick manila folders filled with evidence I had diligently organized. It was accompanied by a spreadsheet listing every contact I’ve made about the matter — who I talked to, when we talked, the outcome of every call or letter. I followed up with monthly e-mails and phone calls, but no response or acknowledgment was ever received.
I wrote indignant posts on social media. And with this essay, I’m even enlisting the help of local media. You would think it would be possible to right this wrong, to receive some modicum of justice.
Thanks for rooting for me and believing in happy endings, but no.
The other Austin McInerny — let’s call him Frank (not his real name) — uses his own name and address along with my SSN. And he’s having an easier time proving he’s me than I am. He’s done this with 25 different companies, all of whom seem to think nothing is amiss. All of whom are quick to pass the blame when I alert them to his latest crime. These companies make me jump through more hoops than Frank — for if they did, they would have known he’s not me.
Local law enforcement? “It happens all the time,” a sergeant with the St. Paul Police Department told me, the day I dropped off the evidence. “The only way we can really do anything is if you capture him on video using your card.”
The local mega-bank I’ve used faithfully since age 16? They can’t explain how someone managed to open multiple lines of credit, in four different departments, using my SSN, even though I already had accounts in two of those departments. How could a high-tech, international bank open a bunch of bank accounts under Austin McInerny with SSN 123-45-6789 and then allow Frank to open a bunch more accounts with SSN 123-45-6789? It’s perplexing beyond belief.
For two years, I’ve been trying to prove who I am. In the meanwhile, my credit was ruined by someone I might have passed on the street.
I think about him often: What brought him into my world? What brought him to my identity? What does he think about at night while falling asleep? I’m sure he could have chosen a better identity to steal. Surely there are wealthier men out there — probably even wealthier Austin McInernys.
And if he knew anything about me — how he almost prevented me from purchasing my first home, how I was forced to pay higher mortgage insurance, how my family lost our father and a brother-in-law last fall during the peak of me trying to resolve this, how my wife and I have struggled to raise our sons in the shadow of this crippling financial burden, how I’ve lost an extraordinary amount of time with friends and family, how I’ve had to use vacation days to run around town trying to get help, how I’ve suffered mentally, which has manifested physically — would he do it all again?
And is he enjoying being Austin McInerny? Because I, decidedly, am not.
Austin McInerny lives in St. Paul, where he and his lovely wife raise two adorable boys. He rides the Green Line to work every day to save the environment and has an unhealthy obsession with Legos for a man his age.
ABOUT 10,000 Takes: 10,000 Takes is a digital section featuring first-person essays about life in the North Star State. We publish narratives about love, family, work, community and culture in Minnesota.