Theresa Sanchez was expecting a $5,400 tax refund when she opened a letter from the IRS in January 2003. Instead, she got a bill demanding payment of taxes on $120,000 in undeclared wages. Someone using her name and Social Security number had earned the money through a series of jobs dating back to 1996 and had not paid any taxes on the income, the letter said.
Sanchez complained to the agency and to the Federal Trade Commission that her identity had been stolen, and was being used by someone to gain employment. Nonetheless, more than two years later, in April 2005, a woman walked into the Swift & Co. meatpacking plant in Greeley, Colo., and used Theresa Sanchez's name and Social Security number to get a job.
The woman's employment ruse became public knowledge Tuesday when authorities raided Swift & Co. plants in six states and arrested approximately 1,300 illegal immigrants suspected of buying or stealing other people's identities to secure U.S. jobs.
The suspect accused of illegally using Sanchez's identity is identified only as Jane Doe in an affidavit filed by authorities Tuesday in Weld County, Colo., district court.
Attempts to find the real Sanchez, who lives in Texas, were unsuccessful. Neither Immigrations and Customs Enforcement officials nor the Federal Trade Commission would provide additional details about her or her case.
But MSNBC.com was able to piece together part of her decade-long identity theft ordeal from details provided in the affidavit.
Sanchez told investigators that she suspects her ex-husband gave the information to an imposter about 10 years ago.
It's not clear why that person – and apparently many others – was able to use Sanchez's personal information to obtain employment – and, in some cases, pay taxes -- even after she alerted federal agencies nearly four years ago that the data was being used for employment fraud.
Government doesn't warn consumers
And over the entire 10-year span, federal agencies like the IRS and the Social Security Administration could have detected suspicious use of her Social Security number, since they were collecting taxes from multiple jobs at multiple locations. But it is not the policy of either agency to warn consumers that their number might have been been stolen.
It happens often. Each year, 8 million to 9 million people pay taxes using the wrong number – some are mere clerical errors, but many are undocumented workers skirting the system by supplying a fake number and another name. In the Swift case, the imposter took on Sanchez's identity, using her real name and Social Security number in a ruse designed to trick even the newest employment verification system, called Basic Pilot.
"The government has known since at least August 2005 that the current Basic Pilot program cannot successfully detect identity theft and would likely permit an unauthorized worker to be improperly verified," U.S. District Judge Mary Lou Robinson wrote in her order denying an injunction filed by Swift to stop the raids.
"Some Social Security numbers are widely used at multiple locations, over 200 workplaces for some numbers," she wrote.
The size of the problem is obviously massive. ICE officials said about 30 percent of Swift's workforce had filed I-9 employment forms with questionable information. There's no reason to suspect the Swift is unique in its industry.
Total number of victims unclear
And Sanchez apparently was just one of hundreds of victims in the Swift case. It is not clear how many IDs were used to obtain employment at the plants, but a fascinating compilation of Colorado-based cases on the Greeley Tribune's Web site gives some indication of the scope.
It's not clear what prompted ICE officials to put a sudden end to their ordeal with the largest work-site enforcement action ever taken.
But there were some hints at Wednesday's press conference. Homeland Security Director Michael Chertoff complained that his agency is legally barred from communication with the Social Security Administration about Social Security numbers that are used twice.
"The law does not allow Social Security to refer cases to us when the Social Security number is used at multiple locations," he said. "A better solution requires congressional Action. …We urge Congress to act."
If it does, it won't be soon enough for Sanchez, who has no way of knowing whether her data was sold or shared with any other undocumented workers.
Federal Trade Commission chairman Deborah Platt Majoras said Wednesday that her agency is reaching out to Swift-related imposter victims, but there is still no way for Sanchez and the other victims to know if anyone else is using their personal information.
Chertoff said one Swift-related ID theft victims had been arrested in Texas because his imposter had committed crimes. Other had multiple loans and credit cards taken out in their names, and had their credit ruined.
"There is a persistent hardship which follows this crime," he said.
Very persistent, as Sanchez's decade-long ordeal demonstrates.