The banker at Wells Fargo looked across her desk at me with the pained expression of somebody who wants to sell you something but can’t.
“I see you already have several accounts with us, Mr. Armstrong,” she said. “Are you sure you’re a new customer?”
I was and I wasn’t. I had accounts everywhere, and most of them weren’t mine. This wasn’t the first time, and I was sure it wouldn’t be the last.
Between 2013, when my identity was stolen, and this May, I tried to prove to credit bureaus and banks that I was me and not the thief. The fake accounts he created shut me out of crucial parts of the consumer finance economy. I was denied credit cards, got harassed by collection agencies, and was told not to bother putting my name on a mortgage application for a house my wife and I were trying to buy.
The other me was living it up. Back in August 2013, wielding a driver’s license with my name and his picture, he opened accounts at four banks in two days and got a credit card with Bank of America. He hit the exclusive Delano Hotel in Miami Beach. He shopped at Whole Foods. He sold an RV to some Texans online, didn’t deliver it, then sent their $39,000 to Russia. There’s footage of him at a Wells Fargo branch, according to an indictment filed by prosecutors. He sits there posing as me, opening accounts.
I got the first call from the police two months later. It would take more than three years for them to bring the case to its conclusion. In the meantime, our lives kept intersecting while the cops and the FBI followed me. Him.
And it wasn’t just banks. Flying to London for work, I was waiting in the business class lounge when I heard my name called over the intercom. There were two men there with badges.
“Are you carrying any monetary instruments?” one of them asked as they went through my bags. They pulled out my credit cards and money clip. There was a single, tattered dollar the texture of suede.
“One dollar, cash,” the border agent wrote down on a scrap of paper.
Every time I entered or left the U.S., I’d be pulled aside, my bags searched, and let go up to an hour later. Once it happened on the jetway as I was boarding. More often it was in a back room full of other detainees. In Atlanta, on the way back from a wedding in Brazil, I saw two customs agents looking over somebody’s open Tupperware container. “It’s a rat,” one of them said. It was, in fact, a dried rat.
Eventually I explained my situation to the TSA. After I got a letter with a “redress number,” I traveled with it clutched in my hands like the promise of safe passage in Casablanca. I was never searched again.
Mine wasn’t the only life my impostor was living, and it didn’t always go so well for him. He had at least one other fake ID, which raised a flag with at least one bank manager. When the manager went to make a copy, the guy ran out of the branch and jumped into a getaway vehicle, according to an affidavit filed by the FBI agent investigating the case.
It’s a nightmare Americans go through every year….