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'Father of ID theft' turns over a new leaf

James Jackson, with wife Sharon and daughter Taylor.

Five years ago, James Jackson stood before a federal judge and confessed to some of the most audacious crimes of identity theft ever committed. He stole nearly $1 million in diamonds and Rolex watches by pretending to be recently deceased corporate executives.

It was just the latest in a long string of identity crimes dating back 25 years, long before the term “identity theft” had even been invented. By then, Jackson was already an ID thief to the stars, having impersonated a long list of corporate executives and Hollywood personalities. He eventually was given the nickname “father of identity theft” by some media outlets.

Back in 2002, Jackson had been in and out of jail for 15 years, managing to get by with relatively short stints each time. But this time, U.S. District Judge Deborah Batts had little patience with Jackson's explanations. In the courtroom was a diagram of the complex schemes he had operated and the 29 felonies to which he was about to plead guilty. "The defendant's crimes are everyone's worst nightmare," Batts wrote at the time. Urged by the U.S. attorney’s office to give Jackson the maximum penalty, Batts sentenced him to eight years in prison – setting the beginning of the term in 2000, when he was first arrested.

This month, Jackson was released to a halfway house, his sentence reduced by a few months for good behavior. He's now an employee of First Choice Staffing Services in Memphis, Tenn. In March, he will be a free man.

"It's going to be different this time, I won't go back," Jackson said during a telephone interview from his new office.

A low-paying desk job is certainly a new life for Jackson, who spent the better part of two decades quite literally living the lifestyle of the rich and famous. He owned fleets of sports cars, bought his wife mink coats, and had homes in several states. He funded the extravagance by pretending to be CBS' Larry Tisch, or General Motors CEO Robert Stemple, or Edward Brennan, CEO of Sears, or some other well-heeled executive. He even impersonated women.

In about 150 letters sent to me from a federal corrections facility in Forrest City, Ark., during the past three years, Jackson offered intimate details of his decades-long march through the identities of rich and famous Americans. He decided to share his exploits, he said, in order to help draw attention to the problem of identity theft, and to help companies learn how to prevent the crime. The letters are the basis of “Your Evil Twin: Behind the Identity Theft Epidemic,” published in 2005. The first chapter of the book is available free on MSNBC.com.

In his letters, Jackson said he managed to fly around the country at little cost, using a technique not unlike that of famed imposter Frank Abagnale, subject of the movie "Catch Me if You Can." Jackson adopted the identity of a Federal Express employee and took advantage of deeply discounted plane tickets for cheap travel. He also says he monitored the purchases of luminaries like Stephen Spielberg by checking their credit card statements on a regular basis.

More fraud from the inside

Jackson even continued his identity crimes from behind bars. Jackson smuggled a cell phone into prison and used it to commit credit card fraud while working landscaping detail. He charged the phone while sitting in the prison's landscaping truck. He hid it in the truck's air vents when he wasn’t using it.

Now, Jackson is making cold calls, trying to convince local businesses to hire temp workers from First Choice. And, he says, he loves it.

"It feels great. It feels refreshing to be able to get a little fresh air," Jackson said. Last weekend, he was granted his first pass, so he could spend 12 hours with his wife -- the first time they’d been truly alone in years. "To be able to do something as simple as go to McDonald's and sip on a shake, it feels super."

Jackson's first frauds date back to the 1980s, when he began staging fake car accidents and collecting insurance payouts. But he quickly graduated to credit card fraud. An early stint in prison helped.

"I had a Nigerian professor," he says, "who taught me everything."

By all accounts, Jackson is a master manipulator. Before his last sentencing, Jackson’s defense attorney Robert Dunn decided he might have luck getting leniency by convincing a judge that Jackson had a mental problem. So Dunn sent Jackson to see one of New York City’s best psychologists for a defense-friendly diagnosis. Jackson fooled the counselor, who diagnosed him with a gambling problem. Batts, who was privy to the long list of prior convictions that showed no evidence of gambling activity, saw right through the diagnosis.

“James outconned his Goddamn self,” Dunn said during a 2005 interview.

A real charmer

Prison did nothing to change Jackson's charming demeanor. His conversation is punctuated with the eager politeness of a southerner; he insists on using proper titles like "Mr." and "Mrs." long after it seems necessary. He laughs loudly and easily, and says he wants to devote the rest of his life's work to warning people about the dangers of identity crimes and what he calls "fundamental flaws in the system." He plans to turn his gift of gab into a productive career in public relations –- or like Abagnale -– as a consultant and guest speaker on identity theft issues.

When not waxing about identity theft, he talks of caring for wife, Sharon, and 7-year-old daughter Taylor.

“My daughter is on the honor roll,” he said.

Genteel hasn't always been Jackson's style. Ten years ago, while awaiting trial in Arkansas on another crime, he sent a box of spiders to federal Judge Julia Smith Gibbons' home to demonstrate that conditions in the jail were sub-par. He'd collected the critters in his cramped jail quarters. Her home address, of course, was supposed to be a secret. So was the home of the FBI agent who helped arrest him. But, while in jail, Jackson hunted his home address down and called in a fake domestic disturbance as a prank, according to court documents.

Jackson is probably the first high-profile ID thief to be sentenced to serious jail time, and so, he is among the first to be released. There is no data on recidivism among identity thieves, but the temptation to return to the digital-age crime will be enormous. And the last time James got out, within weeks, he was back at it again, calling funeral homes to get Social Security numbers, ordering diamonds with money stolen from a dead man's bank account.

But this time, James said, things are different.

"I am all about helping people now and doing what I can do to forestall this crime," he said.

His boss, Dean Langston, is also optimistic. She’s worked with hundreds of former convicts during the past 25 years in the temporary staffing business. She hand-picks halfway house residents that get to work on her staff, and says, as far as she knows, she's never had one return to a life of crime.

"(Jackson) is a good talker. So I said, 'Let use that talent,’" said Langston, general manager at First Choice. Instead of allowing him to work at outside companies, Jackson is working directly for her, makes sales calls and setting up appointments with prospective new clients. "I want him to stay focused and stay on the right track. I want him to know that there is a legitimate way to make a living." Jackson is not allowed near any personal files at the firm, she said, and his use of technology -- such as cell phones and computers -- is severely limited.

"He sits at a phone and makes calls and talks to people," she said. "He's got a talent for that."

A good use of skills

Telemarketing requires incredible patience, and the ability to endure rejection -- skills every identity thief must also posses. When Jackson impersonated Gordon Teter, the recently deceased CEO of Wendy's, in 2000, he tried to get more than $100,000 wired from Teter’s account at Fifth Third Bank in Ohio to diamond dealer Mondera.com, in order to buy expensive jewelry. At first, the bank operator said no. So Jackson simply hung up, called back and got a new operator. He also lowered the request a few dollars, and added new urgency -- this time, he said it was for a time-sensitive stock purchase. The operator quickly coughed up the funds.

Jackson will need much more patience than that to make it in the real world, says Rob Douglas, an identity theft expert and former defense attorney who has studied recidivism among fraudsters.

"I hope the guy has learned his lesson. He did serve significant time," Douglas, who runs IDAlert.info, said. But other con artists he's worked with rarely stay out of trouble when they are released.

"When it comes to identity theft and (imposters), they seem to have this love of the game. It's a challenge to them,” he said.

It's hard for any former criminal to get a legitimate job, Douglas said, but even harder for con artists. No company wants to trust a former identity thief in an office setting.

"It's difficult for them to get a job that's going to pay what they were able to make committing 'victimless' crimes," he said. "The time could come quickly when James is faced with a choice: Do I continue to try to live an honest life and scrape by or can I beat the system this one last time. More often than not, criminals decide, 'I can get away with it this one last time.' And of course, it's never the last time.'"