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June 20, 2009

America's Most Wanted show about identity theft

Fox's America's Most Wanted tonight was in part about an identity thief on the loose. Here's the story of this identity thief's victim, as reported on by America's Most Wanted:

"A Decade Of Agony For Victim Of Identity Theft

Since she was a little girl, Joanna Sanez has been visiting her family in Mexico, but on the trip her family took in 2000, when she was 17, her life would change forever.

Joanna's vacation turned into a nightmare when someone broke into the place where she was staying. The unknown burglar stole Joanna's original birth certificate and her social security card, leaving her with no way to get back to the United States.

At that time, U.S. citizens were able to cross the border carrying just a birth certificate and a social security card; since then, the rules have changed, and a passport is required.

Joanna was told to report the crime to the Mexican authorities, and to alert the FBI stateside. Filing a police report was one thing, but trying to get back into the United States was another obstacle.

Left without the proper ID to cross back over the border, she thought she was going to be stuck in Mexico.

Joanna's father was with her, and after many phone calls and meetings with the local authorities, Joanna was able to cross back into the country -- without her original documents -- to finish high school.

The next year, Joanna turned 18, graduated from high school, and got her first job.

When she filed her original complaint, the FBI had advised her to be vigilant in monitoring her credit report. That's when the first red flag went up: Joanna's credit report claimed that she owned a home in Freemont, Neb., and several cars.

Something wasn't right. Joanna had never been to Freemont, and as a teenager, she definitely didn't have the money to buy a home.

Joanna got on the phone immediately, and contacted the Dodge County, Neb. Sheriff's office, and filed a report. She realized at that point she had become a victim of identity theft, but law enforcement had other priorities, and didn't have the resources to investigate an identity theft case.

The police couldn't help, the Federal Trade Commission couldn't help, and no one knew how to guide her.

At the same time, there was another person going by the name Joanna Sanez -- a fraudster -- living in Nebraska, and the real Joanna couldn't stop the imposter from co-opting her identity. The only thing the real Joanna could do was to keep monitoring her credit and contact the FTC when she spotted new activity.

Joanna tried to put the ordeal out of her mind to focus on her studies, and went off to college in New York, eventually graduating from the New York School of Interior Design. She moved to Colorado, continued to keep track of her credit, and continued to write letters to all three credit reporting agencies -- Equifax, Experian and TransUnion -- about activity in her name.
But Joanna didn't realize the severity of the credit attack until 2005.

She was living in Colorado with her boyfriend when she got a letter in the mail saying she owed $30,000 in back taxes. Joanna was scared because she always did her own taxes, and thought she had made a serious mistake.

The letter said that she had 15 days to pay, or the IRS would come to get her. Joanna panicked and raced to the IRS offices in Denver. There, they told her that she had been working in Freemont, Neb., was making a lot of money, but wasn't paying taxes.

She was told she needed to cough up the money... or else.

Joanna says she felt the room spinning out of control, and a feeling of panic came over her. She contacted an investigator in Nebraska and told him the whole story, but was told that her case was not a priority."

Keeping Your Own Identity Safe

America's Most Wanted sat down with Hemanshu Nigam, Chief of Security for News Corporation, the parent corporation of the company which produces AMW, to talk about identity theft.

'When I looked at what happened with Joanna, one of the biggest challenges she faced was getting a police agency to care, and a lot of agencies deal with all sorts of crime,' Nigam said.

'Identity theft, when it's just a passport and driver's license, may not be at the top of the list.'

'There's less money in the department to spend on investigations, and ... law enforcement is trying to decide [whether] to put your money in a case involving a murder or [an] identity theft case,' he said.

Nigam recommends checking your credit periodically, and you can do that for free.

If you are worried about theft, experts recommend putting a fraud alert on your credit report.
If you've been the victim of identity theft, file a police report. If the police station in your town doesn't want you to file a regular report, you can ask them to file a miscellaneous report.

'Police departments are learning, just like victims are, that once your identity is stolen, all sorts of other things can follow,' News Corp.'s Nigam says. 'That's why the credit reporting agencies have to put up alerts if you ask for it. They have to do a credit freeze if you ask for it. A credit freeze, by the way, is if I place a credit freeze on my account, anybody who wants to run my credit can't do it unless they have a special code that I have given them.'

You can also help the police department you are working with by creating a notebook, and taking all of your information with you.

'A lot of police agencies have a specifically-designated police officer or detective for fraud issues or identity theft issues,' Nigam says. 'Ask to speak to that officer, and show them what you've done to make their life easier.'

Once you have filed a report with your local police, you can then file a report with the FTC; the FTC's website compiles the information and matches up similar cases across the United States. But identity theft isn't just an online problem.

'In the offline world, every month your bills come, and they usually come in the middle or end of the month,' Nigam says. 'What do we always do? We fill it out, give up the money, pay the money, write the checks, put it in the envelope and put it in the mailbox down the street. We all have a little red flag, we push that flag up. What are we doing? If I'm an identity thief, and looking at that red flag, I'm saying, 'there must be some confidential information in there. Why don't I just open it and take it?' You're telling the neighborhood and the world there is stuff for you to take.'

Also, when making purchases online, Nigam says you shouldn't use your debit card: a debit transaction is an immediate transfer of your money directly out of your bank account, and it's hard to get that money back if you lose it to a scammer. If you use a credit card and are conned out of your money, your credit card provider is required by law to cancel the transaction and refund your account.

Will The Real Joanna Please Stand Up?

Joanna says she was scared of being arrested, because she didn't know who the woman in Nebraska using her name was, or if that woman was committing crimes under the name Joanna Saenz. Since the imposter had had her social security number, her date of birth, a legal address, and everything else she would have needed to commit crime in her name, Joanna's packet contained copies of the police reports she’d filed, papers from the social security office, recent credit reports and documentation of all fraudulent activity, a list of all the accounts opened under her name, and anything else she could dig up on the 'other' Joanna.

She kept copies of her detailed report in her car, on her person when she went on job interviews, hidden throughout her home, and always at the ready in case she needed to defend herself.
On July 18, 2007, Joanna gave birth to a little boy, and she was scared for his life. At that point, she says she thought, 'I'm not going to do this anymore. I have to get this person!'

Tracking the imposter became Joanna's full-time passion, in addition to working for the Englewood, Colo. Chamber of Commerce.

'I really went full throttle with this,' Joanna said. She finally found an advocate, at the Identity Theft Action Council of Nebraska, where a woman by the name of Jamie Napp was happy to help guide her.

Joanna would stay up late at night, combing over her credit reports and other paperwork with a fine-tooth comb.

Then, she noticed something that would help lead to her doppelganger's downfall. The imposter, it seemed, was working at a place called Staff Pro.

Joanna called the business and confronted them with the truth. They told her that the fake Joanna had worked with Staff Pro for a long time, before taking a job as an Irrigation Technician with Valmont Industries, a local manufacturing company.

As a matter of fact, the Freemont (Neb.) Tribune did a story about the fake Joanna Sanez, and her picture appeared in the local newspaper!

As time went on, no matter how much she stayed on top of things, the real Joanna was finding it harder and harder to get information. Creditors would begin contacting the real Joanna at her home in Denver, and instead of giving up more of her personal information, she would start asking questions.

When a representative from Cellular One called and told Joanna that she owed $600, Joanna would start firing off questions to get information on the fake Joanna. 'Where did I buy the phone?' she asked. 'What's my phone number? Whats my address? How did I pay for the down payment?'

They would usually get nasty with her, Joanna says, and demanded a payment.

Joanna continued to spend her time writing cease and desist letters to creditors, every single day for years. If she wasn't writing a letter, she was calling to check on the status of one she had already sent, or was working to contact someone else to get something straight with her credit.
A frightening turning point came in 2008, when she received a store credit card in the mail at her home in Colorado. Joanna believed it was a sign that her credit was shaping up, until her husband pointed out that Joanna never applied for a card.

Joanna called the number on the back of the card, and the operator told her that she had applied for the card in Freemont -- a place she had still never been. She was certain the fake Joanna knew where she lived, and the real Joanna feared for her safety.

Finally, in April 2008, Joanna notified the Nebraska Department of Motor Vehicles of her plight, and she made contact with an investigator there. At the same time, she contacted Immigration and Customs Enforcement, and spoke with Special Agent Charles Bautch's secretary.

Joanna told the secretary her story, and begged her to get the case information to S.A. Bautch. The secretary admitted on the phone that she was a little skeptical of the case, but moved the folder to the top of the pile.

Within three days, S.A. Bautch and the local investigator located the woman who they believe to be the fake Joanna and arrested her. When they went to her home, knocked on the door, and asked her if she was Joanna Sanez, she said yes.

They asked her for her birth date, and she told them that she was born in 1983 -- on the day Joanna was born. They asked for her social security number and her mother’s maiden name, and she gave them all of Joanna's information.

Investigators told the real Joanna that there was a little girl inside the home, apparently a daughter born to the fake Joanna in the United States. This woman, police have said, had purchased a house and two vehicles, gave birth to a child, started a promising career, and acquired several credit cards, all under Joanna's name.

Investigators asked her for her birth certificate and social security card, and that's when the alleged fake Joanna gave them Joanna's original stolen documents, which had been taken from Mexico so many years before.

Investigators learned that the woman's real name is Patricia Garcia-Pardo, who was actually born in 1985. They hauled Pardo to jail, but by the time she got there, she acted like she didn't speak English.

'I feel like a rape victim,' Joanna says. 'She took my life, she violated my privacy. I was scared.'
Grateful and thankful for years of hard work, Joanna sat down to write out thank you letters and send gifts to every single person who helped her along the way -- and even those who wouldn't help her.

State charges were brought against Pardo, and the investigator asked if Joanna wanted to take the charges federal. She did.

Pardo was transferred to federal court, but the judge didn't feel that she was a threat, and because she's not accused of a violent crime, he let her go.

Pardo was released on just $500 bail, and did show up for her first hearing, but by the time of the second hearing in October 2008, Pardo was nowhere to be found.

One of Pardo's former bosses, Walt Borne at Valmont Industries, says he knew Patricia Garcia-Pardo, but not as Joanna, and not even as Patti, but by the pseudonym 'Marie.'

'It almost makes you feel like you were tricked, that she could basically, you know, fool you into believing that she was who she wanted you to believe,' Walt says.

We also learned from Walt some traits that could help you track Pardo down. He says she is a big snacker, and likes eating lots of foods from the vending machines. Her job required her to do a lot of lifting 30- to 40-pound boxes, which she did without a struggle, and Pardo was always on time for her overnight shift.

Walt says Pardo got along well with her co-workers, and she was a very bubbly, chatty, friendly person.

Patricia Pardo is now a wanted fugitive on the run, and Joanna isn't stopping her fight to locate her.

Joanna hopes that by telling her story, she can inspire others who are victims or who may become victims in the future.

Joanna says that even once Pardo is behind bars, and after all she's been through over the last decade, she would still forgive her alleged scammer.

'If I don't forgive her, God wouldn't forgive me for my errors in my life, so I feel I need to forgive others as they have forgiven us,' Joanna said."

The info about and a picture of Joanna's identity thief is found here - Please take a look at the identity thief and help bring this identity thief to justice!

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