Theft Gave Her A New Identity
Mari Frank, a Laguna Niguel lawyer, went from victim to victims' advocate by educating herself during tough times.
By LISA MUÑOZ
THE ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
For someone who makes her living persuading others to lock themselves up with a key, Mari Frank takes surprising leaps of faith in people.
Identity-theft victim turned advocate, Frank greets strangers like old friends, is generous to a fault and has helped people even when she was not sure she would be paid for her services.
For Frank, a lawyer in Laguna Niguel, the professional and personal payoffs for taking such leaps have been huge.
Once, at a conference in Hawaii, she met a teenager who insisted on setting her up with his recently divorced dad. When the boy's father arrived at Frank's hotel for their dinner date sporting a beard, her first thought was that "he looked like a freeway killer."
Still, she went out with him. He turned out to be "one of the kindest human beings in the world." So she married him.
That was before 1996, when something happened that she says made her path in life much clearer. That summer, the Bank of New York called to ask when she planned to pay her $11,000 credit-card bill. Alarmed, she informed the caller that she did not have such an account with them.
She spent the next 10 months uncovering a trail of identity theftthat led her to more than $50,000 in credit that a Ventura stranger had taken out in her name. When police arrived at the imposter's house, they discovered that the woman had obtained several high-limit credit cards, a car loan for a red Mustang convertible and even checks and business cards in Frank's name.
The cops also found demands from collection agencies, a letter from a car-rental agency threatening to sue her for damages to a car the woman rented in Frank's name, copies of Frank's credit reports and a .22-caliber Beretta handgun.
The experience left Frank shocked, depressed and then ready for a fight.
By the next year, she had rebounded. She appeared on the television news program "Dateline," testified before Congress and started writing a book on her experience.
In the eight years since her identity was hijacked, Frank has written five books, appeared on dozens of local and national news programs such as "48 Hours" and "The O'Reilly Factor," testified before state and federal lawmakers and regulators, and helped shape legislation that has given California the toughest privacy laws in the country.
In those years, identity theft has become a household term and the fastest-growing white- collar crime, affecting 10 million consumers last year, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
"When I was dealing with my identity-theft situation, no one knew what to tell me," she said recently. "I was kind of finding my way through the forest."
Consumers may worry each time they give out their Social Security number or buy something online. But Frank says many consumers think their personal information is more secure than it truly is. Others simply don't know how to guard their personal information or the risks the crime poses to their lives.
Frank says even those who commit the crime have no idea how their crime affects their victims.
The daughter of a Chicago furrier who as a girl dreamed of having a wool coat, Frank says she feels "spiritually directed" to educate consumers about identity theft.
She got her start as an advocate when, working as a high school teacher in Virginia, she volunteered at a consumer group after they helped her with an auto-repair complaint.
"I wasn't a lawyer yet, but I already had a mouth on me," she said.
Frank's ability to talk has gotten her on TV. She has a new PBS special airing on KOCE called "Identity Theft: Protecting Yourself in the Information Age."
"I thought that (identity theft) would be an important topic to address. So we looked around and found Mari and thought that she was terrific," said Tony Tiano, CEO of Santa Fe Productions. "We didn't like that she had been a victim, but we were impressed with the fact that she had been a victim and had fought her way out of it. And we thought she was good on camera."
The 90-minute program was shot in May in Albuquerque and began airing on PBS stations across the country this month. In January, her fifth book, "Safeguard Your Identity: Protect Yourself With a Personal Privacy Audit," will hit bookstores around the country.
"She really took the lemon that happened to her and made it into lemonade," said Ellen Felton, her assistant of five years.
Frank warns everyone she meets to check their credit reports regularly and judiciously use debit cards.
A self-described "Energizer Bunny," she rises at 5:30 a.m. to work out with a personal trainer. She sends her first e-mail of the day by 7 a.m., many signed: "Hugs, Mari." She is a powerhouse in St. John and sensible pumps.
Away from work, Frank does not sit around and read. She water skis, scuba dives and hangs out with her husband, Lloyd Boshaw, on their boat in the Newport Harbor.
It's not always easy to work for someone with all that energy, Felton said. Frank can be demanding at times, Felton said, because she puts so much of her time into her clients' problems.
Frank's work to educate consumersabout identity theft has led some of what Felton called "the most desperate cases" to call on Frank for guidance.
Those cases are often not lucrative for an attorney trying to keep an office running, so Frank still practices family and divorce law to pay the bills.
Now that she has covered identity theft so well, Frank says she would like to write a book on negotiation strategies for women in life, relationships and work.
That fits with how Frank approaches divorce proceedings with her clients.
"She's an educator," Felton said. "She'll teach people how to communicate and how to ask for what they want. In a lot of ways, it's the same thing when she's dealing with identity theft. They're both highly emotional situations."
Those "emotional situations" taught Frank a lesson she will never forget.
"When times are bad, I like to say, 'This too shall pass,' " she said. "And when times are good, I say, 'This too shall pass.' I never want to think I've got the world on a string."
FIGHTING ID THEFT MARI FRANK'S TIPS:
Buy a cross-cut shredder to destroy important papers, pre- approved credit applications received in your name, credit-card receipts and other financial information that provides access to your private information.
When using ATMs and phone cards, look out for "shoulder surfers" who look for your PIN codes to get access to accounts.
Have your checks delivered to your bank, not to your home address.
Mail theft is common and it's easy to change the name of the recipient on the check with an acid wash. Mail checks from a U.S. Postal Service office or mailbox instead of your home mailbox.
Cancel all credit cards that you do not use or have not used in six months.
Put passwords on all your accounts and do not use your mother's maiden name. Make up a fictitious word instead.
Ask all financial institutions, doctors' offices, etc., what they do with your private information and make sure that they shredit and protect your information.
Don't carry extra credit cards that you don't use or anything with your Social Security number in your wallet if you don't need it.
Never give out personal information to callers you don't know.
Get credit cards and business cards with your picture on them.
If you shop online, only buy from Web sites where your credit- card account number is encrypted.
Order a copy of each of your three credit reports at least twice a year and review them carefully. You can get a free report once a year by calling (877) 322-8228.
If you see anything that appears fraudulent, immediately put a fraud alert on your reports.
Contact the three credit-reporting agencies to opt out of pre-approved offers: Experian (800) 353-0809, Equifax (888) 567-8688, TransUnion (800) 680-7293.
Make a list or photocopy of all your credit-card and bank-account numbers with customer service phone numbers. Keep the list in a safe place (not on the hard drive of your computer if you go online).