ATLANTA, Ga. -
We live in a world where a crook can steal someone's life savings without ever meeting their victim or even breaking into their home.
The consequences of identity theft can be devastating. Three years ago a convicted ID thief promised he was going to use his skills to help the good guys. Instead, he continued to help himself.
His name: Justin Walker, an unemployed Atlanta man who stole his first identity when he was just thirteen. The FOX 5 I-Team met him in the fall of 2012 as he sat in the Gwinnett County jail awaiting sentencing. Duluth police say he stole as much as two million dollars from homeowners there and across the country.
Even in jail, Walker had a plan. Explain to us how easy it was to steal, and perhaps the judge would go easy on him during sentencing.
We were happy to listen to a thief explain how to avoid people like him.
"I wish I had never done it," Walker said, his voice barely above a whisper. "And I wish that I could change what happened but now all I can do is try to make sure it doesn't happen to anyone else."
At 24, Walker had already lived a life of excess. Expensive shopping sprees in New York. Luxury cars he would buy and give to friends. He even somehow bought an Atlanta Police Department uniform and took pictures of himself showing it off.
"I always wanted to be a police officer," he admitted.
"What were you planning to do with it?
"What, the uniform? I just liked how it felt."
He apologized for all the harm he had caused the people who had to spend years sorting through and repairing their financial lives. And he promised he was out of the ID theft business for good.
"We've got him tied to at least $220,000," Atlanta police detective Ken Stapler explained.
Just a few months after being released early from prison, Atlanta police caught Walker stealing more identities. A suspicious Atlanta hotel manager spotted the ex-con using someone else's credit card. He pled guilty. APD detectives say they found $12,000 in gift cards in the room safe and victim info spread everywhere.
"We found laying on the bed, on end tables, documents, handwritten notes with names, social security numbers, addresses, just profiles," detective Stapler recounted. "He told me he wanted to turn his life around but he was broke. Couldn't earn any money. Couldn't get a job. So he didn't have a choice."
"Do you buy that explanation?"
"No. I think he enjoys it. It's a way of life for him."
A way of life. So how do all of us protect ourselves from someone living that way of life? We need to make sure the companies we do business with are listening to what Justin Walker is saying.
He told us he would often start his crime by stealing financial mail from homes he found attractive on-line. So make sure your bills are paperless.
"I would see the area that it's in, like if it had a golf course nearby it was probably a good area," Walker remembered.
He would research his victims' birthday and other personal info already online. Then he'd assume their identity and call certain merchants who use overseas customer service reps. Walker says when he would get the security answers wrong, they'd be more likely to cut him some slack and share the right answer.
"So you took advantage of them trying to be helpful to you."
"Way more helpful than they should have been," insisted Walker.
So make sure your credit cards have extra security measures.
Eventually, Walker would drain his victim's bank account, or add himself to someone's credit card account. Then he'd wait near his victim's house for the new card to be delivered so he could grab it himself.
But Walker and Atlanta police say he could not have pulled off his scheme if it wasn't for another company's effort to make life easier for its customers.
"Once he found out they're a Comcast customer, he would download the Comcast Xfinity app to his iPhone," explained detective Stapler. "With that app he was able to change the user name and password on their email and have all their phone calls forwarded to him. Some of these banks would call to verify the transfers. And without him being able to forward the phone calls, some of this money would have never gotten transferred."
A Comcast spokesman said there were "no security breaches or "hacks" that took place" and the thefts happened "via traditional means" such as mail theft or contacting their call center under and assumed name. Comcast has no plans to change its security protocol.
The FOX 5 I-Team saw an apologetic Justin Walker one more time, back in Superior Court judge Warren Davis' Gwinnett courtroom last month to see whether the judge would revoke his probation for that Atlanta arrest.
"He's very personable," warned APD sergeant Paul Cooper. "Very friendly. And from what we found during the investigation, if he talks to you long enough, you start to like him."
Walker tried to explain himself to the judge, and ended with a sob.
"I was determined when I came home to do everything I was supposed to do," he insisted. "I was on the right track to do everything I was supposed to do. And it just fell apart."
But Judge Davis didn't buy the tears.
"You like the hustle," he told Walker. "It's what you're going to do. It's as addictive as any drug."
He sent Walker back to prison for at least three more years with no early release.
"I don't see any indicators Justin's going to turn his life around," pointed out Sgt. Cooper. "Hopefully, we can get him some substantial time, enough that it hurts this time that maybe he'll think twice when he gets out."