As one of the very first and still very few experts in identity theft, Carrie Kerskie is always one step ahead of the game. She reaches out to organizations before they know they need her. She spends five, 10 hours a week detecting emerging threats for not if but when their outbreak infects her clients. She makes herself the sacrificial guinea pig for each scam so she knows how to stop the bleeding for others.
And after years as a private investigator—you name it, she’s surveilled it—nothing shocks her anymore. Usually, it’s great to be great at your job.
But when a congressman wants to surprise you with recognition in the Congressional Record but your own Google alert tipped you off, perhaps you’re a bit too good at what you do.
“It’s just what I do,” a still-amused Kerskie, 45, says from her office at Hodges University in Naples, where she is the director and sole employee of its growing Identity Fraud Institute. Naturally, when she saw a website grouping her name with U.S. Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart’s, she called his office to warn of potential fraud. “And they said, ‘Well, what’s your name?’ They put me on hold, they came back and they said, ‘You weren’t supposed to know that.’”
Kerskie’s assessment of our privacy is rather blunt.
“The new chip cards—that’s a joke. It’s not going to do anything.”
“I found over the years that the data privacy training that most employees get—it’s a joke. It’s worthless.”
“Anything you do on the Internet is pretty much the equivalent of putting it on a billboard on the highway.”
“I’m not teaching the criminals anything they don’t already know.”
And, importantly, as she calculates everyone already has had their data breached approximately 2.5 times: “You can’t prevent identity theft from happening.”
The facts are enough to make anyone want to run and hide, but to Kerskie they’re now just pieces to the puzzle. Self-education has moved her matter-of-factly from her initial state of “paranoid,” almost crippled by the lurking risks, to something more like “equipped for battle.” In fact, there are only a handful of people with her qualifications in the country.
She not only “wrote the book” but rewrote a law, making business identity theft a crime in Florida with the help of Rep. Kathleen Passidomo. She was invited by NASA to speak to its employees last October, following the breach of more than 20 million records from the United States Office of Personnel Management. She’s been tapped for countless interviews by countless news outlets, just recently for Real Simple.
“I had to be the geek and I ran over to Target and grabbed every one they had,” she says.
Despite accusations of Chicken Little fearmongering and refrains of “Who cares?”, Kerskie sees herself as a duty-bound steward. Identity theft is the Federal Trade Commission’s top consumer complaint, she says, with Florida long being the No. 1 state.
Naples-Immokalee-Marco Island comes in at the No. 5 metro area, with Cape Coral-Fort Myers landing at No. 11 and the Miami area at No. 1. Not for long, if she can help it.
Before the days of leading so many seminars her voice was at times gone by week’s end, Kerskie got a taste of public speaking in middle school when she was crowned Junior Miss Collier County (complete with ’80s-awesome plaid vest and pink skirt). The same girl would have no qualms getting her hands dirty to repair her first car, a ’67 Mustang
convertible. She did some modeling, played some softball.
She’s always been confident, says her mother, Sheila Schindler, and comfortable being the boss. A young fan of Nancy Drew and Quincy M.E., she’s also always been inquisitive. “Nosy,” Kerskie calls it.
“People always thought I’d be a schoolteacher. Even now they think I look like a schoolteacher. That’s why I always did so great on undercover work, because no one ever suspected me,” Kerskie says, laughing.
But she sought a degree in business (quick yet lucrative), with a focus in finance. She attended two years at what is now Florida SouthWestern State College, where she asked out the man who would become her husband of 21 years and counting—despite his having a girlfriend. She ultimately graduated from the University of Central Florida.
She worked years as a financial adviser until she had her first of two children (they’re now 15 and 13). But a desire for community involvement led her to teach adults at the Lorenzo Walker Institute of Technology. A student of her QuickBooks course owned a private investigation firm, and he happened to need the help of somebody with her background. She jumped on the case and immediately “got bit by the PI bug,” eventually taking over the company.
“All the times we’d go out, people almost hit the floor to hear that there’s a 5 ½-foot woman that chases cheating husbands around,” says her husband, Scott Kerskie, who actually got his own license and worked for her part-time.
One “ridiculous” case in particular still sticks in her mind. A woman from up north claimed she had carpal tunnel so bad she couldn’t brush her hair or feed herself. When she said she was flying to Southwest Florida to visit her dying father, her insurance company hired Kerskie and her team to monitor her visit. Kerskie got quite the sunburn sitting for hours poolside at The Naples Beach Hotel & Golf Club, a hidden camera aimed through her beach bag.
“I mean we got her at the bar throwing back shots, she’s sitting on the pool using her arms to get in and out—it was absolutely beautiful,” Kerskie says.
They also had evidence showing she flew in a nurse friend from the Las Vegas area, with whom she had drinks at another hotel bar. Kerskie’s investigator positioned next to them heard loud and clear as the nurse prepped this woman on exactly how she should speak as to the condition of her “dying” father when she returned.
But it didn’t end there. It was a recorded hookup with a guy in The Naples Beach Hotel parking lot that proved her quarter-of-a-million-dollar undoing.
“So they brought the husband in and they played that video. None of the other stuff that we had; just that video,” Kerskie says. “And he turned on her. ‘That lyin’, cheatin’, blah blah blah, this was her scam from day one!’”
She insists she played a small part, but Kerskie’s local involvement also was the tipping point for a horrific national case that led to a moratorium on adoptions out of Guatemala. She’s proud of that one. But some she’d like to forget, like one investigating the possible molestation of a child around her kids’ age. And eventually, she just got to know too much about too many people.
“Because Naples is a small town and I’ve grown up here since I was 10, you start seeing names of people that you know,” she says. Like parents of the kids who wanted her children over for a sleepover. “When it really started to become an issue was when my children became older and they started school.”
She still holds her PI license, but mostly she subcontracts through a certification program she created and then licensed to another organization. That’s so she can focus on identity theft—through her firm, Kerskie Group Inc., and now at Hodges. The foundation of the work is the same: patience, thoroughness, the joy of untangling a mess. But now, she gets closure. She’s not putting herself in dangerous situations. She’s no longer desensitized to the underbelly of the community. Above all, she is educating others. Her kids get a little more than the average parental lectures (you may as well be broadcasting a profile of yourself with those Facebook surveys). Her parents “get a kick out of” her texts flagging the latest viruses and scams (stay away from those stick-figure memes).
The calling came around 2006, 2007, when the identity theft claims started flooding in. The subject was new to her, so she started researching. She found such little information on the Internet, but deeper digging revealed patterns in habits of the victims. She felt compelled to share her findings. Mostly, she was met with apathy and doubt.
“I told them, ‘I’m not selling anything, I don’t have to say my company name. It’s just strictly education,’” Kerskie says. “The first group I reached out to said, ‘Well we don’t care about that, it doesn’t happen in Naples.’ And I said, ‘OK, I’m onto something here!’ That’s the mindset and that’s what puts people at risk.”
Kerskie attributes the area’s high level of identity theft to its large elderly and affluent populations and Florida’s very open public record laws. She credits Naples’ drop from No. 3 to No. 5 to the Collier Identity Theft Task Force.
It came to be in late 2013, when Kerskie was approached by then Greater Naples Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Reagan and Sheriff Kevin Rambosk to unify their efforts. Their first forum was held at the North Collier Fire Rescue station, with task force members thinking they’d be lucky if they saw 10 people. Kerskie, however, predicted the room fitting 120 wouldn’t be big enough. She was right. More than 300 people showed up.
With the fire marshal in the room, you can’t exactly go over capacity. So they took as many as they could and offered to hold a second presentation afterward. No fewer than 100 people went home and came back.
Hodges University caught wind of the mounting issue, and a formed partnership led to the Identity Fraud Institute. Launched last summer, it currently offers consumer workshops, corporate training programs, free 30-minute victim assistance consultations. The task force serves as advisory board.
“People want more,” Kerskie says. “They want to know exactly what they need to do.”
Over the years, she’s seen it all. Emails claiming lottery winnings or purchases no one made; callers posing as mortgage lenders; information stolen because failing to sign up for an online opportunity (like access to a telephone or social security account) left it wide open for a criminal to do so. Think beyond the credit card, Kerskie stresses. The motivation behind identity theft isn’t always financial. Sometimes, a situation turns out not to be identity theft at all.
One woman tried to renew her American Express card only to receive a letter saying she couldn’t—because she was deceased. They discovered the death of the woman’s husband was erroneously recorded under her Social Security number, not his.
“When I called the credit bureau, they tried to play the same game with me that they’ll do for victims,” Kerskie says. “And I just said, ‘Nope, here’s the federal citation. Shall I send it to you?’”
Problem resolved. That might be what Kerskie’s friend Jenny Craig calls her “BS monitor.”
“She’s a woman who speaks the truth and only allows the truth,” says Craig, an emotional intelligence coach who previously teamed up with Kerskie on issues such as cyberbullying. “Maybe that’s the more polite way of saying it.”
After nearly 11 hours in the car with Kerskie in January on a trip to Tallahassee to request state funding, then interim president of Hodges David Borofsky probably knew more than ever he pegged the right person for the job. Disciplined, creative, engaging—and relentless.
“On the way, (Johnson School of Business Dean) Dr. (Aysegul) Timur and I were talking about the university, and kind of out of nowhere Carrie started asking some questions,” he says. “The PI in her head started asking questions. She thinks in that way.”
Her husband teases her for her ability to spot “at least three to five” privacy vulnerabilities within five minutes of being in a restaurant, for the fact she knows what the man at the table to their left is wearing. She can’t turn it off.
“The same thing with her driving,” he says. “She’s used to tailing people, so she knows who’s in front of her and who’s coming up behind her.”
Coming up ahead for Kerskie are some big moves at Hodges. This summer she should transition to full-time focus at the institute, where the goal is to become the go-to resource for not only Southwest Florida or the entire state, but the nation.
They want to partner across all industries to become a central repository for statistics. They want to facilitate more trained boots on the ground, so professionals can work with their respective patrons directly. They plan to build certification and degree programs in identity theft restoration, risk management and data privacy, including what Borofsky believes will be the first data privacy degree of its kind in the country—it will unusually cut across every school at the university. They encourage individuals to begin a career in helping victims, Kerskie says, “because it’s never going to go away.”
It seems people are finally starting to believe her. So many forums since that fire-hazard packed house have seen a similar response.
Her friend Craig tries to retrieve a quote, wanting help articulating the success of Kerskie’s head-down approach. A ha—Gandhi, apparently.
“‘First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win,’” she recites. “I think that wraps up Carrie pretty well.”