Nicole discovered that someone with a name very similar to hers had stolen her identity and opened fraudulent accounts in her name and under her Social Security number. This was only the beginning of a long and arduous saga in which she took all of the recommended steps to rectify the problem, but nonetheless was beset by financial and emotional stresses over several years before the matter was finally resolved. Ultimately, she secured some relief in the form of a substantial jury verdict against a credit reporting firm. The firm bore no responsibility for the identity theft itself, but it had repeatedly compounded the impact of the theft by mishandling information about Nicole. Nicole sued the firm under the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA).
Although it did not do so intentionally, the credit reporting firm had caused Nicole’s ordeal to be more protracted, and to have more consequences for her finances and general well-being, by mistakenly putting her address and Social Security number on credit files set up by the identity thief. What is worse, the firm did this a few times over several years, even after having been informed of the problem. Because of the erroneously adverse credit files, Nicole was sometimes denied credit, such as for a home mortgage. On other occasions, she was offered credit only on very disadvantageous terms because she was perceived as such a high risk. Nicole did have some previous credit problems of her own making, but the “infection” of her credit information by the files created by the identity thief made her look even worse to lenders.
A key issue in the firm’s unsuccessful appeal from the jury verdict was whether Nicole had shown enough to recover a large sum not just for out-of-pocket losses, but also for emotional distress. The federal appellate court left the verdict undisturbed. The jury had not indicated what portion of its total award was attributable to emotional injuries, but, in any case, the court was satisfied that the award was not excessive in light of the evidence offered at trial.
Nicole had been made to spend literally hundreds of hours, often while having to miss work, trying to undo the tangled mess created by the firm. The record showed that as she dealt with the credit reporting service and tried to cope with the rippling effects of its errors, Nicole often was uncharacteristically upset with friends, family members, and co-workers. She was beset by frequent headaches, sleeplessness, and even such symptoms as bad skin and hair loss. In short, Nicole became a wreck emotionally and even physically. For its role in causing it all, the credit reporting firm had to pay.