By Julie Watts

SAN FRANCISCO (KPIX 5) — If you have ever been a victim of crime, you know the feeling: I wish I could have caught them. A San Francisco man who had his wallet stolen was able to corner the thieves who stole his identity.

Brian Hill is exactly the guy you want living next door. “Well, we have a neighborhood watch block, for one. And I’m part of a foot patrol, called the Castro Community on Patrol.”

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But even this diligent member of his neighborhood watch became a victim.

“They get into this backyard network through some neighbor’s door, and then they climb over the fence,” Hill recalled.

Hill said the thieves went over the fence and into his car.

“What they took was the little spare wallet that I had buried under here,” he said. The spare wallet held three credit cards, a California ID and one insurance card. “And this was one of these older medical insurance cards that had my Social Security number on it.”

They went to town, all over town, and we’re not just talking credit cards.

“Well, they decided I needed a new place to get my mail, so they opened up a new mailbox for me here,” Hill said.

It took a tip from his neighborhood mail carrier, but Hill was able to track down the fake mailbox. And it turns out the store where the mailbox was located held more than his mail.
“They also had video footage of the people that had opened the mailbox, including the person that had assumed my identity to be able to get my mail,” he said.

KPIX 5: “These two guys, the guy that opened the mailbox and the guy who’s been collecting the mail under your name, they aren’t the only ones involved in this identity theft?”

Hill: “Not at all. I left one of my credit cards open, to see where it would go.”

KPIX 5: “So you followed the credit card trail?”

Hill: “And it led me to this Best Western on 7th Street.”

KPIX 5: “And what did you find?”

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Hill: “I asked them if I was checked in. They said ‘yes, you have two rooms for two nights. And at that point I thought, ok, now it’s time to call the police.'”

Neal O’Farrell of the Identity Theft Council said a victim catching his own thief is almost unheard of.

“Not only has the victim identified who the thief is, cornered the thief, cops arrested, and there’s a prosecution. I mean, I would put more money on getting milk from a bull then to see a situation like this,” O’Farrell said. “It’s rare to see something like this. It truly is.”

This rare story also reveals some things everyone should understand about identity theft. First: Thieves work in teams, and the guy who uses your credit card is probably just a foot soldier.

“The street level – the lowest level of ID theft – is the thief with the check or the credit card. The professionals call them ‘chumps’ or ‘do-dos,'” O’Farrell said.

While those so-called “chumps” can use your credit card, they probably don’t know how to use your Social Security number. O’Farrell said, “So they will typically sell it or trade it for drugs, to others who really do know what to do with it – and that’s when it really gets dangerous.”

It’s dangerous because that can haunt you forever.

The second lesson from this story: Thieves almost never get caught.

“We estimate that less than one percent of ID theft crimes are even investigated, and that’s probably an exaggeration,” O’Farrell said.

Brian Hill has personally attended almost every court hearing, begging prosecutors and the judge to issue a sentence that sends a message.

“So that he can tell the little network of people he deals with…well, stay away from this block. In fact, stay out of the Castro,” Hill said.

As for the man arrested in the hotel, he was already out on parole. Despite facing a list of new felonies in connection with the case, he could be back on the streets by the end of this month.

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As for the men who were caught on camera setting up the fake mailbox, they are still at large.