An Akron teacher's saga after her driver's license was stolen is strong proof that our Ohio Bureau of Motor Vehicles alert system needs to be revamped.
As it stands now, there is no mechanism in place to put an alert on a driver's license that has been stolen, which could potentially notify law enforcement if that stolen license is used in a crime. Instead, the BMV requires proof that the license has been used in a crime, essentially meaning a victim has to wait to be victimized further with an identity theft crime before an alert or a new driver's license number can be issued.
Frankly, that's anti-consumer.
Amy Gray is proof of that.
Gray's small purse, containing her driver's license, two credit cards and her COVID-19 vaccine card, was stolen in January.
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She did what most consumers do: she quickly canceled the credit cards after getting an alert that one had been used for a series of small purchases down the street and an attempt to take $500 out in cash from the account was denied.
Gray also replaced her driver's license.
She didn't think anything else of the stolen purse until she received a letter in the mail several months later telling her there was a $15 fee for a block on her driver's license — because there was a warrant out for her arrest.
What happened the day of the crime?
Gray, a 14-year teaching veteran, is an Akron Public Schools teacher and job training coordinator. She works in Summit Mall in a transitional employment program that teaches skills to students. Students come for half a day and they develop work skills, including maintenance and housekeeping.
The theft happened sometime during the morning of Jan. 6.
Initially, she didn't realize her small purse, a gift she had recently received from her mom for Christmas, was stolen from her work bag. In fact, she forgot she had placed the new purse in the bag that day.
The room where she and her students stow their belongings had been left unlocked at some point that morning, but she wasn't concerned because her work bag was still there.
She got an alert as she was ending her workday that someone was trying to get $500 cash back from one of her credit cards. Her two credit cards both had small purchases leading up to that, but not the debit card. The first purchase had been at a mall food-court vendor, followed by about about five purchases up and down Market Street.
She drove home quickly to go look for her purse, forgetting she had put it in her work bag. When she realized it was missing from her work bag, she called the credit card companies to cancel and went back to report the theft to mall security.
Gray knew her students did not take her wristlet because they were on a bus back to the school when the fraudulent purchases happened.
"Oh my God, I haven't got a license," she thought.
She went to the local BMV on Jan. 13 to get a replacement license.
"I'm now thinking that whole situation is old for me. It was a hassle and of course I was upset that I lost that purse my mom got me," she said.
Months later, a letter in the mail causes panic
Fast-forward to April 23. Gray had just returned from a spring break trip and wasn't feeling well. She opened a letter from the BMV on a Saturday that said she's got a block on any new driver's license or car registration and a $15 fee.
"This action is the result of an outstanding warrant for your arrest" and court case in Portage County Municipal Court, the letter read. "This block will not end until the court clears your case and you meet all BMV requirements."
"What the heck is this?" she wondered.
She Googled her name and Portage County court and found a case for a misdemeanor theft.
She phoned the Brimfield Police Department, where the theft was reported. Gray spoke to an officer who said he remembered the case and that one of the officers involved wasn't sure the woman who presented the driver's license was the same person. "Okay, well it wasn't me," she said. "How do I clear this up?"
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The officer said one of the arresting officers was on duty that night from 11 p.m. to 7 a.m. Gray set her alarm for 6 a.m. to call and speak to the officer.
The officer told her to call the county prosecutor's office. When she did, a person in the office told her: "You've got to turn yourself in. It's a warrant."
She asked what would happen if she got pulled over on the way. He said she'd be arrested.
Gray had her mom drive her to a doctor's office since she didn't want to drive with the warrant out for her arrest. She called her Akron schools supervisor to tell her what was going on and that she had to take the next day off to turn herself into the court. She also called her teachers' union representative, who told her not to go to court without an attorney.
She hired an attorney for $1,500. The attorney and Gray's mom went to the courthouse on , April 26 to appear before the judge. The attorney started to say this was a case of mistaken identity and the judge set the next court date of May 12 and instructed Gray not to go into the Walmart until this was resolved.
That was the first time Gray heard that the offense was at a Walmart. Her attorney took a photograph of Gray and her warrant was released.
Court dates ensue
For her next court date, she pleaded not guilty but again her attorney was not able to explain anything about the case.
Gray also went to the BMV to try to resolve the $15 fee and block since her warrant was released. She was given a name for a BMV investigator. Gray had to send documentation to the investigator that a crime had been committed using her driver's license before the BMV would consider giving her a new driver's license number.
Gray also had to get another police report in Fairlawn, where the crime occurred, to provide to the BMV. She initially was told a police report could not be taken since it had been too long since the crime had happened, but she did eventually get a report and sent it to the BMV.
In the meantime, her attorney filed a motion to dismiss and also was able to view the surveillance video of the suspect and take it to the prosecutor.
"They see it's clearly not me. They dismiss it," said Gray, who has not been able to view the video herself.
Her attorney did eventually show her a picture of the suspect. "She barely had any eyebrows, she was older, she had glasses, she had way longer hair," said Gray, who also said the woman did not have as petite a build as her.
"Maybe thank God she didn't look a lot like me so that I got off easier, or it would have been more difficult, I guess," she said.
Gray's attorney also filed a motion to seal the court records and add a journal entry that the case was dismissed due to mistaken identity — again trying to proactively protect Gray from future problems with any Bureau of Criminal Investigation checks on her record for any renewals of her teaching license. A judge granted the motion in late June.
'Will I have to address this every single time?'
Gray is frustrated that she had to take so many steps and spend money and time to prove she was not the suspect in a crime. She has been in touch with the Brimfield police, but the case is still under investigation, so she cannot get much information. Gray also doesn't know what items were stolen.
Gray believes there should be some type of alert on stolen driver's licenses to save others from all of the headaches she had to endure.
"I thought my license was safe because of the picture," she said.
Gray also worries that others in the same predicament wouldn't have the means to hire an attorney to prove their innocence. The $1,500 was still money Gray didn't want to spend, but she felt she had to in order to correct the records.
Gray also had to pay for two more driver's licenses: the initial duplicate and one with a new driver's license number. But the rub is that license expires in November when she turns 47, so she'll have to pay for a third driver's license.
Now, Gray is very paranoid about her driver's license.
"I don't take my license with me," she said, adding that she knows she has a certain amount of time to produce her license if she were ever pulled over.
Summit Mall also now provides individual lockers with keys in the room for the school program.
Ohio BMV response
When I reached out to the Ohio BMV, spokeswoman Lindsey Bohrer said there is currently "no indicator available for a stolen license."
"We understand and appreciate the uniqueness of this case, but the process for changing an Ohio driver license number is a balance. On one hand, the change cannot be too easily granted as it could contribute to fraudulent offenses, such as the purposeful changing of driver license numbers to commit further financial and identity offenses. On the other hand, the process cannot be too difficult to inhibit identity theft victims’ access to the process. A notation may be added or the number changed if the victim shows that the driver license number has been compromised and that the driver license number has been used fraudulently," said Bohrer.
"The BMV is always open to creating strategies to help victims of fraud and will work with Law Enforcement/LEADS to explore the concept, after a stolen credential police report has been filed, to alert law enforcement," Bohrer said. "This will help in the unique situation of Ms. Gray."
Identity theft a serious issue
Brimfield Police Sgt. Matthew McCarty said he could not speak directly about the case since it was still under investigation.
McCarty said law enforcement takes identity theft very seriously, but oftentimes they are hard cases to solve.
"We may wish that the person who did that is brought to justice, but the reality is that it may or may not be because it's such a difficult thing," he said.
Too often, a perpetrator thinks identity theft is a harmless crime, but "it's not, there's a victim" like Gray, he said.
McCarty suggests anyone who has a wallet stolen files a police report with the local jurisdiction to get it on the record.
According to the Brimfield police report, the incident occurred 8:37 p.m. April 3. Officers were dispatched to the Brimfield Walmart for a theft in progress. "A later investigation found that the suspect involved in the theft investigation did provide investigating officers with a false identity."
Mona Terry, chief victims officer for the San Diego-based Identity Theft Resource Center, said stolen driver's licenses account for 9% of ID theft cases reported to the nonprofit. Of those, 73% were due to a compromise (driver’s license or license number exposed through a scam, breach, being lost or stolen, or through unauthorized access to a computer/mobile device) and 24% involve a driver’s license being misused (as part of taking over an existing account, to create a new account, or commit a crime).
"Unfortunately, it's not unusual," said Terry of driver's license ID-theft crime. "That's kind of the plight of the identity theft victim."
The crime is easy for the thief to do and then the victim has to "unravel that process," she said.
The nonprofit is in the midst of conducting a national survey of BMVs to get a better understanding of how stolen driver's licenses are handled. The nonprofit had started the survey before COVID and only recently started it again. It hopes to have results so it can use them to advocate by later this fall.
Beacon Journal staff reporter Betty Lin-Fisher can be reached at 330-996-3724 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her @blinfisherABJ on Twitter or www.facebook.com/BettyLinFisherABJ To see her most recent stories and columns, go to www.tinyurl.com/bettylinfisher
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Column: Ohio BMV system needs change to protect ID theft victims