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January|February 2005
Identity Crisis By Andy Latack
Parliament of Dunces By James B. Goodno
The Fall of New Rome By Geoffrey Gagnon
The King of Plots By Aaron Dalton
the Prudent Jurist By William H. Simon
Cases & Controversies

Identity Crisis

To make its players safe the NFL is tackling schemers and scammers.

By Andy Latack

ROY WILLIAMS WASN'T EXPECTING THE PHONE CALL he got this fall. "Mr. Williams, you mentioned you're looking for a house," said the realtor on the other end of the line. "I've found one for you." Williams, a rookie for the Detroit Lions and one of the most promising young players in the National Football League, was confused. He was definitely not looking for a house, and he was about to hang up when he heard the real estate agent say, "But you left me a message yesterday. You said, 'This is Roy Williams with the Lions. I just signed my big NFL contract and I'm looking to buy a house.' "

Williams blinked and felt a chill. He had never left any message. He wasn't looking for a house. He had just bought one. It took the rookie a second to realize that this realtor was being played. Roy Williams wasn't trying to buy a house. Someone was trying to buy a house as Roy Williams.

Identity theft is not just the National Football League's newest problem: It's one of its biggest. With pro football players younger, richer, and more renowned than the average citizen, they're perfect marks. After them are legions of scam artists hustling for credit card digits, Social Security numbers, and mothers' maiden names—information that's easy to obtain with a little dirty work. Although the league does not release actual numbers of players targeted, it says it gets at least one report a week of a player who's been victimized. That corresponds with the rise of identity theft nationwide. Seven million Americans got taken in 2003, making this the fastest-growing crime in America.

All professional athletes run the risk, but pro football players more so than their basketball or baseball counterparts. There are 53 players on an NFL roster—roughly double the size of a baseball team and four times larger than a basketball squad—so swindlers have a larger population to choose from. Also, one of the very things that protects the players on the field is what makes them easy targets off it. Since players wear helmets, the public has no idea what many of them look like. As a result, the NFL is what its director of security Milt Ahlerich calls a "target-rich environment." "The players are a group of people known to make a lot of money," explained Ahlerich, a former FBI agent who in 1996 joined NFL Security, the arm of the NFL that guards the league and its players from all types of victimization. "For criminals, it's much easier than looking through the phone book."

Most vulnerable are the rookies—newly minted millionaires who go from Escorts to Escalades overnight. Every June, the NFL holds the rookie symposium, an intense four-day crash course in dealing with the media, dodging groupies, and hanging onto your money. In recent years, identity theft has become an essential topic at the symposium, and the subject makes even distractible young ears perk up. "Any time they were talking finances, we listened," says the Lions' Williams. "Everyone speaks that language."

In addition to providing criminal background checks on everyone from potential business partners to nannies, NFL Security advises rookies to take a lot of precautions. Shred your documents. Lock your mailbox. Don't include your address on checks. Order a credit report often. Sign your autographs differently than your checks. "You don't even think about it when you're in college," says Williams's teammate and Lions quarterback Joey Harrington. "I mean, who'd steal the identity of a college student? There's nothing to steal."

That changes with the stroke of a pen. Once the rookies ink their big-money deals—Williams's contract gives him the opportunity to make as much as $27 million over five years—it's open season. And many of the crooks are pretty good shots. "These are professional thieves. They do this for a living and they're very good at it. That's what we're up against," said Matt Couloute, a sports attorney and agent who saw the problem up close in former posts with NFL Security and then as a lawyer for the NFL Players Association.

The thieves run scams in two ways: outright identity theft and impersonation fraud. Impersonation fraud is less sophisticated—a crook pretends that he's a player in order to get perks. "In L.A., everyone knows what Kobe Bryant looks like," Couloute explained. "But if you're a big guy in Indianapolis, and you say, 'I'm the second-string tackle for the Colts,' nobody's going to think twice about that." Impersonation fraud generally results in a few free vodka tonics, entrance to the VIP room, and maybe a night with the blonde perched at the end of the bar.

But while impersonation fraud may tarnish a player's good name, identity theft can lay him out like he's been tagged by a blitzing safety. The thief digs through a player's trash or mailbox for a financial document. Maybe he'll even call the player, posing as a bank officer who needs to verify account information. The data is used to get phony credit in a faraway state, and loans or down payments on some expensive items follow. The game often ends after a few missed payments prompt the lending institution to notify the player, who checks his credit report and sees that things are in chaos. But this usually doesn't happen until 18 months after the original theft. Then dealing with the scam can take weeks of battling collection agencies, calling credit bureaus, and canceling cards. "It's an absolute mess to unpack," said Couloute. That's why he has his clients check their credit weekly, sometimes even daily. "I've got them pretty neurotic about it."

When he worked for NFL Security, Couloute detailed memorable examples of actual or attempted identity theft, including the scheme that nearly sacked quarterback Danny Wuerffel. As college football's most valuable player, Wuerffel won the Heisman Trophy in 1996 and was a backup quarterback for the Green Bay Packers in 2000. "I was in my apartment after practice one evening, and the phone rang," Wuerffel said. "It was the Home Depot credit department, asking if I had applied for a home-improvement loan in New Jersey." A loan officer at Home Depot had become suspicious when a man armed with Wuerffel's birth date and SSN misspelled the name of Wuerffel's off-season residence on an application for a $16,000 loan. It escaped Home Depot's notice, however, that the man was slim and black, while Wuerffel was 6'1", 212 pounds, and white.

The cautionary tales are having some effect. A survey of the Lions locker room indicates that players are adopting self-protective habits. Williams scratches out his Amex number on the merchant's copy of receipts when he signs his name to a charge slip. Harrington shreds documents like someone trained in the Nixon White House. "It's what we signed up for," Williams said. "It's one of the things you have to deal with when you have money." And there are worse things than having to protect your millions. NFL players have a sweet life. Look at Williams—he's young, rich, and on his way to becoming a superstar. A lot of people would love to be Roy Williams. And some of them are going to keep trying.

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