When Candida L. Gutierrez's identity was stolen, the thief didn't limit herself to opening fraudulent credit and bank accounts. She assumed Gutierrez's persona completely, using it to get a job, a driver's license, a mortgage and even medical care for the birth of two children.
All the while, the crook claimed the real Gutierrez was the one who had stolen her identity. The women's unusual tug-of-war puts a face on "total identity theft," a brazen form of the crime in which con artists go beyond financial fraud to assume many other aspects of another person's life.
The scheme has been linked to illegal immigrants who use stolen Social Security numbers to get paid at their jobs, and authorities fear the problem could soon grow to ensnare more unsuspecting Americans.
"When she claimed my identity and I claimed it back, she was informed that I was claiming it too," said Gutierrez, a 31-year-old Houston elementary school teacher. "She knew I was aware and that I was trying to fight, and yet she would keep fighting. It is not like she realized and she stopped. No, she kept going, and she kept going harder."
A 32-year-old illegal immigrant named Benita Cardona-Gonzalez is accused of using Gutierrez's identity during a 10-year period when she worked at a Topeka company that packages refrigerated foods.
For years, large numbers of illegal immigrants have filled out payroll forms using their real names but stolen Social Security numbers. However, as electronic employment verification systems such as E-Verify become more common, the use of fake numbers is increasingly difficult. Now prosecutors worry that more people will try to fool the systems by assuming full identities rather than stealing the numbers alone.
For victims, total identity theft can also have serious health consequences if electronic medical records linked to Social Security numbers get mixed up, putting at risk the accuracy of important patient information such as blood types or life-threatening allergies.
Federal Trade Commission statistics show that Americans reported more than 279,000 instances of identity theft in 2011, up from 251,100 a year earlier. While it is unclear how many of those cases involve total identity theft, one possible indicator is the number of identity theft complaints that involve more than one type of identity theft — 13 percent last year, compared with 12 percent a year earlier.
Nationwide, employment-related fraud accounted for 8 percent of identity theft complaints last year. But in states with large immigrant populations, employment-related identity fraud was much higher: 25 percent in Arizona, 15 percent in Texas, 16 percent in New Mexico, 12 percent in California.
Prosecutors say that the longer a person uses someone else's identity, the more confident the thief becomes using that identity for purposes other than just working.
Once they have become established in a community, identity thieves don't want to live in the shadows and they seek a normal life like everybody else. That's when they take the next step and get a driver's license, a home loan and health insurance.
"And so that is a natural progression, and that is what we are seeing," said Assistant U.S. Attorney Brent Anderson, who is prosecuting the case against Gutierrez's alleged impostor.
Gutierrez first learned her identity had been hijacked when she was turned down for a mortgage more than a decade ago. Now each year she trudges to the Social Security Administration with her birth certificate, driver's license, passport and even school yearbooks to prove her identity and clear her employment record.
She spends hours on the phone with creditors and credit bureaus, fills out affidavits and has yet to clean up her credit history. Her tax records are a mess. She even once phoned the impostor's Kansas employer in a futile effort to find some relief.
Both women claimed they were identity theft victims and sought to get new Social Security numbers. The Social Security Administration turned down the request from Gutierrez, instead issuing a new number to the woman impersonating her. And in another ironic twist, Gutierrez was forced to file her federal income tax forms using a special identification number usually reserved for illegal immigrants.
"It is such a horrible nightmare," Gutierrez said. "You get really angry, and then you start realizing anger is not going to help. ... But when you have so much on your plate and you keep such a busy life, it is really such a super big inconvenience. You have to find the time for someone who is abusing you."
When Gutierrez recently got married, her husband began researching identity theft on the Internet and stumbled across identity theft cases filed against other illegal immigrants working at Reser's Fine Foods, the same manufacturer where Cardona-Gonzalez worked. He contacted federal authorities in Kansas and asked them to investigate the employee working there who had stolen his wife's identity.
The alleged impostor was arrested in August, and her fingerprints confirmed that immigration agents had encountered Cardona-Gonzalez in 1996 in Harlingen, Texas, and sent her back to Mexico.
Cardona-Gonzalez did not respond to a letter sent to her at the Butler County jail, where she is awaiting trial on charges of aggravated identity theft, misuse of a Social Security number and production of a false document.
Her attorney, Matthew Works, did not respond to phone calls and emails seeking comment. Court filings indicate the two sides are negotiating a plea agreement.
Citing privacy issues, the Social Security Administration declined to discuss the Gutierrez case. Reser's Fine Foods did not return a message left at its Topeka plant.
Anderson expects more cases of total identity theft "because we all know what is going on out there — which is thousands and thousands of people who are working illegally in the United States under false identities, mostly of U.S. citizens, and very little is being done about it. But we are doing something about it, one case at a time."