CHARLOTTE, N.C. - Anyone can be you -- renting home after home in your name, and it only takes seconds for them to take everything.
A Charlotte doctor who was targeted in a nightmare identity theft scam is warning community members to protect your personal information.
Dr. Crystal Bowe told Eyewitness News Anchor Brittney Johnson she was targeted in an outrageous scheme that jeopardizes innocent victims' credit and possibly puts apartment residents in danger.
Bowe said she learned there was a big problem when she received a frantic text message from her husband saying a bill collector called demanding she pay an apartment application fee.
"Do you have an apartment? Do you know about an apartment? Call me!" she said the text said.
"I was like, 'Are you joking?! Who would have time for an apartment? We have two kids!'" said Bowe.
But her husband said the caller was very specific and even had her Social Security number. Bowe called back and learned someone was applying for apartments all over Charlotte in her name.
"I was just irate. I can't believe someone did this to me. How could they get away with that?" she said.
She checked her credit report. There had been 14 inquiries and someone succeeded in renting three apartments, using her name.
She said companies hesitated to give her any information over the phone, so she started showing up.
"Hi, I'm the real Crystal. I'm here. We need to call the police. You can call or I can, because the person who rented this apartment is not me," she said.
What they showed her next, blew her away. Apartment managers showed her copies of pay stubs with her Social Security number and driver's license with her name, a variation of her address and someone else's accurate driver's license number.
But the license had someone else's picture. With help from witnesses, police identified the suspect as Shakiyla Pickens.
"She was like, 'Oh no, you're not that girl,'" Bowe said, explaining how managers reacted when she showed up with proof of her real identity.
Police reports show officers went to three apartments and found people inside that Bowe didn't know. Officers arrested one of them on an outstanding warrant for assault.
"They said 'Oh no, Crystal Bowe said I could be here for the weekend,' and I was just livid! Like, 'You don't know Crystal Bowe because I'm Crystal Bowe,'" she said.
One of the apartments in her name was at Somerstone Estates. The manager there told Channel 9 this looks like a subleasing scheme they've seen before, where someone rents an apartment with stolen information and then finds someone else to sublease it and pays them directly.
Over the phone, Katherine Grove, with Dasmen Residential and Somerstone Estates, said, "Obviously we have concerns about who is actually there, what is their background, what is their criminal record."
Grove said they check rental history, credit, income and criminal records for their applications and that someone may have targeted the real Crystal Bowe because she has good credit, which would have meant the tenant only had to pay the minimum move-in costs of $200. But now, they're not paying any rent and attorneys have filed for an eviction.
"It's just a hassle, people may be looking to purchase a home, get a mortgage," said Charlotte Mecklenburg Police Department Sgt. Seth Greene.
Greene leads CMPD's financial crimes unit, which is investigating this case.
Greene said identity theft cases can be challenging since most of them are committed online.
"I think it's a network of people that perpetrate these types of crimes," he said.
His two best pieces of advice are to ask questions before you give out your Social Security number and to freeze your credit.
"It's huge, nobody is immune to this," said Greene.
Bowe's credit score has already taken a hit and she has no idea what else is out there.
"I’m a working mother. I'm paying to put children through college right now. I'm paying my bills. I don't want to risk the cops coming to my job for something I didn't do," she said.
She's keeping a log of evidence and speaking out, prepared to protect her credit and defend her name.
Police said they arrested the suspect in this case, Pickens, and charged her with identity theft.
One of the apartment managers told Eyewitness News that they plan to strengthen the rental screening process by scanning driver's licenses. To learn how you can protect your identity in 30 minutes, click here.
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