Six years after an identity thief stole her personal information to open fraudulent student loans, Chicagoan Marisol Vargas-Sierra said she was still trying to shake off the $6,000 in bogus debt.
"It just wouldn't go away. It was like a nightmare that you couldn't wake up from," she told NBC 5 Responds.
The first clue something was amiss came in the form of student loan bills connected to a community college in Iowa. A state Vargas-Sierra has never stepped foot in.
"Never interested to visit Iowa. Have no idea who or what is there,” she said.
The bills kept piling up, with the US Department of Education demanding payment from Vargas-Sierra of $6,000 in loans plus late fees. She contested the debt, filed a police report, and offered all the proof required by the government, but says each of her appeals were denied.
"According to them, I applied for the loan and I am responsible, period,” she said.
Vargas-Sierra said the government began garnishing 15 percent of her paychecks, and that's when she turned to NBC 5 Responds for assistance.
"My sister said, 'Absolutely not! We're going to keep fighting and that's when she's the one who told me contact Lisa Parker. Her famous words- ‘she'll get to the bottom of it,’" Vargas-Sierra said.
We took a look at the papertrail and found the loan documents in question riddled with errors and inconsistencies, as is common in cases of identity theft. Thieves are often armed with scant accurate information- namely, a social security number and birthdate. In her case, those are the only facts the thief got right. Every other detail about Vargas-Sierra, she said, was incorrect in the paperwork: her family member's names, her address, her phone numbers, the date she graduated high school.
Worse yet, it appears an analyst for the Department of Education used some of the misinformation generated by the identity thieves to pin guilt on Vargas-Sierra. The analyst's findings included numerous errors of fact, and incorporated details that tracked back only to the fraudulent loan applications, and nowhere else in Vargas-Sierra’s trackable history.
We asked the US Department of Education to take a look at our findings. The agency would not comment, but agreed to re-open Vargas-Sierra’s appeal for a loan discharge. After reviewing NBC 5 Responds’ research and subsequent questions, the Department sent Vargas-Sierra the letter she'd been working so hard to get for five years: clearing her of any obligation to repay the loans. The agency also repaid her the almost $3,000 it garnished from her wages.
"You have done what I didn't think possible. You were relentless," she told NBC5 Responds. "I feel like I look 10 years younger. I feel so relieved...You kept telling me don't worry, don't lose faith. But I was losing faith."
For its part, Des Moines Area Community College, the school where the thief enrolled, quickly responded to NBC5’s requests for documents and other information. DMACC pointed out it had no role in pursuing Marisol for the debt. The US Department of Education approved the forms submitted by the identity thief in this case; DMACC’s says it role simply involved disbursement of the funds involved.