|Friday, November 1
Updated: November 9, 3:51 PM ET
The other Tiger that lurks in the Woods
By Darren Rovell
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- He never wore clothes littered with Nike's familiar swoosh. He never claimed to be America's richest athlete. He never bragged about being the game's greatest golfer. But the name on the driver's license that had his picture on it sounded familiar.
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He lived in a modest, gated apartment complex and drove an older, but well-maintained 1991 Lexus LS 400 -- hardly the kind of home and vehicle that Tiger Woods would be expected to have. But searches by investigators found evidence -- a counterfeit U.S. Military Identification card, a forged Social Security card and a fraudulently obtained California driver's license, among others -- that was used to prosecute Anthony Lemar Taylor, a two-time convicted felon with a rapsheet of petty thefts and first-degree robberies that spanned 17 years, for pirating Woods' identity and stealing more than $50,000 worth of goods and services in his name.
That the Social Security card had the wrong middle name for Woods, let alone that he looked nothing like the world's most recognizable athlete, did little to prevent Taylor from establishing at least a dozen lines of credit in Woods' name. A contract found in the glove compartment of Taylor's car led authorities to a 10-by-30-foot room at a public storage facility that was filled with recently purchased merchandise. Bar codes on the items were traced to local stores, where investigators found credit applications that Taylor had completed using Woods' name.
"It's a violation of your own persona," said Woods, who 32 months ago came to the Sacramento County courthouse to testify against Taylor. "You feel like you have been violated, because you have all your credit cards, you have your driver's license, you've got everything. You haven't let anything out of your sight. Nonetheless, someone goes ahead and does that to you."
Identity theft -- the fraudulent use of another person's identity, most often for financial gain -- affects about 700,000 Americans each year, qualifying it as the nation's fastest-growing crime, according to the Federal Trade Commission. It is not only high-profile athletes and celebrities who are targeted, but Joe and Jane Average who often become victims of scavengers who sift through garbage, looking for scraps of personal information that can enable them to tap a person's credit or bank accounts. A carelessly discarded application for a pre-approved credit card can be activated by a thief or a bank account can be accessed using the routing codes gleaned from old checks.
"It's not unusual that someone would say, 'I'm really so and so, and I'm really a celebrity athlete,' " said Milt Ahlerich, vice president of security for the NFL, which investigates identity theft cases involving dozen of players each year. "But to actually get their telephone numbers, date of birth, address and social security numbers takes a level of sophistication that is now in play, and we're unfortunately seeing more of it."
Two years ago, Danny Wuerffel, the 1996 Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback who was then a backup with the Green Bay Packers, was notified that he had been approved for a $16,000 home improvement loan at a Home Depot in suburban New Jersey, nearly a thousand miles away. San Antonio Spurs guard Steve Smith learned someone had gone on a shopping spree and charged some $81,000 in his name. New England Patriots cornerback Ty Law, who returned an interception 47 yards for a tide-turning touchdown in Super Bowl XXXVI, knew something was amiss when he glanced at his ATM receipt one day; it turns out that someone had made two previous withdrawals of $10,000 from his bank account.
And none other than Michael Jordan, whose picture of the back of his head was deemed more recognizable in a marketing survey than the traditional portrait of Jesus Christ, is believed to have been targeted as well. His name and bank account information was found among those of others on a long list of Chicago-area residents compiled by an alleged identity thief.
"If you can get Tiger Woods and Michael Jordan, oh hell, you can get Ty Law," Law said.
Said Wuerffel: "It's a hard crime to stop from happening. You can do what you can to protect yourself, but a lot of it is just reacting to what has happened when it does happen."
Lie of the Tiger
Months later, with sufficient identification in his wallet, Taylor successfully obtained credit at local electronics, furniture and jewelry stores around Sacramento. He established a $5,500 credit line at Circuit City, where he bought CD and DVD players and a dishwasher. At Furniture USA, he spent $3,839 on items including a sofa, coffee table and lamps. At The Good Guys, he walked away with a video recorder, speakers and a big-screen television. Authorities believe Taylor used a U-Haul truck -- rented, of course, in Woods' name -- to transport the booty to the storage facility.
In the credit applications, Taylor usually claimed to earn a modest income, often less than $100,000, and at least once said he was employed by Capitol Records. According to Lynn Roloff, a Sacramento County Sheriff's detective assigned to the Sacramento Regional Identity Theft Task Force, Taylor never made an effort to sign a good forgery of Tiger's signature, never talked about his sweet golf swing and never tried to make the connection that he was "Tiger" Woods, with the exception of one credit application in which he claimed to work for Steinberg Sports Agency. Perhaps not so coincidentally, Woods is represented by agent Mark Steinberg of Cleveland-based International Management Group.
"It was surprising how many people did not know that the name Eldrick Woods was associated with Tiger," Roloff said. "But I'm somewhat embarrassed to say that I even started out on this case without knowing that Eldrick Woods was Tiger."
Some merchants, like one at a furniture store called The Room Source, recognized Eldrick Woods as Tiger's given name and refused to extend a line of credit in his name. But the fraudulent identification Taylor used was never confiscated and authorities were never alerted, allowing him to continue to tap into Woods' credit line until the very day he was fortuitously caught for an unrelated parole violation.
It is worth noting that Taylor never attempted to open charge accounts with major credit companies like Visa, MasterCard or American Express. Woods, of course, earns a reported $5 million annually as an American Express endorser and is featured on national advertising touting the company.
"You work so hard to get to where you're at, you don't want some lunatic somewhere going ahead and screwing it up," Woods told ESPN.com. "It's unfortunate, but it's probably going to happen to me again, or happen to other athletes as well."
Three months ago, the Cook County Sheriff's Police Department in Illinois uncovered an elaborate identity theft ring, which allegedly had targeted 30 Chicago-area residents. Authorities claim that a man bribed employees of banks and the Illinois Secretary of State's office to obtain account and personal information of the victims, then had driver's licenses made in their names which were used to successfully withdraw more than $1 million from various accounts.
Had he not been caught and charged with identity theft on Sept. 4, police say they believe Ishman Walker intended to tap at least 40 more accounts, including basketball star Michael Jordan's, Cook County Sheriff's spokesperson Sally Daly said.
When investigators searched Walker's home, they found a bank account number belonging to Jordan and his wife Juanita. When questioned, Walker admitted he was searching for a lookalike for Jordan or his wife to complete a withdrawal from their account, Daly said.
"We believe that, based on the notoriety of Michael Jordan, that (Walker) didn't obtain his account number by accident," Daly said. "Given Jordan's popularity here in his hometown, it was going to be a very difficult task, but he might have been able to get away with a lookalike for his wife."
Despite the close call, Jordan's representatives said they weren't concerned.
"We feel we have enough controls that we can protect his personal and financial information," said Estee Portnoy, vice president of marketing and client services for SFX Sports Group. "We are double and triple checking those things all the time."
It didn't matter. As several sports team owners have learned, there are never enough safeguards to eliminate a person's vulnerability to fraud.
Last week, Dwayne Kellum was sentenced to more than seven years in prison on charges including mail fraud, identity theft and money laundering after he attempted to open a brokerage account with Los Angeles Lakers owner Jerry Buss' state tax return, made out for $161,171.32. When Kellum claimed to be Jerry Buss Jr., FBI officials were notified. A quick check of the Lakers' media guide and it is easily found that Buss has four children -- Jeanie, Johnny, Jim and Janie -- but none named Jerry.
Next week, Jeffrey Groover and Cheryl Lovelace are scheduled to be sentenced after pleading guilty to credit card fraud in U.S. District Court in Florida. The two allegedly obtained five American Express credit cards in the name of Nelson P. Doubleday, the former co-owner of the New York Mets.
And there's an ongoing investigation involving Sacramento Kings co-owner Joe Maloof. A "con man" obtained fraudulent identification to pose as Maloof, then forged a check from his bank account for more than $50,000. "The bank called me," Maloof said. "I didn't recall writing that kind of check for anything."
After notifying the FBI, Maloof said he has canceled his credit card accounts and changed banks.
"I think as you become a more public figure, you have to be careful because of things like this," Maloof said. "There are a lot of con men out there and they will do everything they can to get into your bankroll or your pocket book.
"What that person did to me and what they've done to Tiger and other professional athletes is a sin and they should be prosecuted."
Catching a Tiger impersonator
Taylor received 200 years to life, a sentence that he is appealing, after he was convicted on eight felony counts -- four counts of grand theft by false pretense, one count of forgery, another for illegally possessing a forged driver's license, and two counts for perjury -- related to his use of Woods' identity. That he had his two previous convictions of first-degree robbery made him eligible for California's "three strikes" penalty.
Jonathan Hoskins, who was convicted of bilking Ty Law's bank account, will be released in two months after receiving only one year in jail -- which is the average time served by first-time identity theft offenders.
"People will always view so-called white-collar crimes not on the same level as bank robbery, where force is involved," said special agent Ben Berry, a supervisor for the FBI's white-collar crime unit. "But it's a very serious crime. It's one that causes individuals a lot of stress and potentially a lot of financial loss."
Woods and Law said they did not sustain significant financial loss, but they did have to work to ensure that their credit rating was not damaged. According to identity fraud consultants, victims usually need more than a month to restore credit and repair damage to their reputation. They also can spend more than $1,000 in attorney and notary fees.
With identity theft, unlike robbery or shoplifting, it is not always evident that a crime has taken place. Thanks to modern technologies, a person's bank accounts can be raided of all its money and credit cards can be charged to their limits by a thief from the comfort of home.
Roloff, of the Sacramento Regional Identity Theft Task Force, said that some states, in the process of rehabilitating criminals, unwittingly encourage them to make a new career out of identity theft. Programs inside prisons often include jobs as telemarketers, in which credit information is collected from consumers over the phone without the person ever knowing they are giving it to a prisoner, or vocational training that teaches them the nuances of computer programs, which they can use to research a person's credit information using the Internet or to refine their skills to make counterfeit identification.
According to Kevin Hallinan, Major League Baseball's senior vice president of security and facility management, once a person is an identity theft victim, there is a 22 percent chance they will be victimized again. But two bills on Capitol Hill could help to curb the growing crime. Three weeks ago, a measure was introduced to the House of Representatives which would increase the penalties associated with identity theft. A related measure in the Senate would limit the misuse of social security numbers.
"This is something that no matter what I would have done or could have done, I couldn't have stopped this one," Woods said. "It's one of those things that's probably gonna happen to somebody at some point in time. You just hope it doesn't damage you with credit card companies or people you're affiliated with."
Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for ESPN.com, can be reached at Darren.firstname.lastname@example.org.