POST OF THE DAY
Living Below Your Means
Identity Theft: What To Do

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By CCSand
May 7, 2001

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I had hoped to post something more positive for my 500th message, but I guess it just wasn't to be.

Flashback.

Early last month, I went to get a haircut. I used my credit card to pay for the haircut and the card was declined. I thought this was rather odd because I'd only put a couple hundred dollars on it that month and there was plenty of room. So I paid in cash, went back to my office and got online to look at my account statement. Lo and behold, there were all kinds of charges on my credit card, including a cash advance from Western Union, a pizza from a restaurant I've never been to, and several telephone calls. (Who uses their credit card to charge telephone calls???!!!) I immediately called Capital One and cancelled the card and reported the fraud. Then I called the Sheriff's office and made a crime report. However, it soon became apparent that the thief had used my last name and somehow knew my home address. Since my purse wasn't stolen and I wasn't missing any credit card statements, we couldn't figure out how they got the information! Just to be on the safe side, my husband and I visited Costco the following evening and purchased a crosscut shredder and a safe.

Fast forward to yesterday.

I call my husband to talk about our daily "to do" list. He informs me that we received a telephone call from the branch manager of our bank. The branch manager received a letter which included our full names, address, checking account number and my "signature" requesting that 70% of the balance of our account be rush wired to a bank account in the Philippines. Needless to say, the letter was a forgery - not a great one, but good enough that the branch manager thought it was really my signature. The only way the thieves could have obtained this information was to steal it out of our mailbox. Another sheriff's report. And a crime report to the USPS. Mail theft and mail tampering is, after all, a federal offense. The officer informs us that there has been a problem with mail theft in our neighborhood. We live in a rural neighborhood near the bottom of a hill. The mailboxes are all down on a secluded street and the houses are all up on a hill out of view. Perfect for a mail thief.

Now we're scared. Now we're REALLY scared.

So I spent yesterday evening walking my neighborhood. It turns out that our next-door neighbor has had three insured packages stolen from their house in the last couple of months.

As an aside, the criminal mind that did this isn't very bright. He ordered a pizza and had it delivered to his house and presented proper identification when he picked up the money from Western Union. Duh. They will catch this guy.

So, my husband and I both took the day off of work and called all three credit reporting agencies and every single account we own.

Should you become a victim of identity theft, this is what you should do.

1. Call the three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Transunion and Experian.
 
You need to put a fraud alert on all three of your credit reports. This has three effects: 1) You get a free copy of your credit report, 2) they remove your name and address from the pre-approved offers list, and 3) any new credit grantor will be instructed to telephone you to verify that you really want to open the account. Experian has an automated fraud alert telephone number, but they will only put a temporary fraud alert on your report. In order to have a permanent fraud alert placed on your Experian report, you have to send them a letter with a photocopy of your driver's license and the first page of your telephone bill. The fraud departments of Equifax and Transunion do not appear to be open to take reports after business hours. When you receive the credit report, there is a telephone number that you can call to dispute any items. You will be required to give them the confirmation number on the credit report that you received. I was pleasantly surprised that this process is a lot easier than I imagined. There were several inaccuracies on my report and I was able to dispute them over the telephone without having to provide a letter or supporting documentation. This is a good thing because several of the inaccuracies are from accounts that are so old I no longer have any records.

Follow up all of your telephone calls with letters!

I can't stress enough that this is the first and most important step you should take. Anyone trying to obtain credit in your name and using your social security number is going to have a credit check run on them. This will hopefully nip any further fraud in the bud.

2. Since our mail was likely stolen, we put a hold on our mail at our local post office. If the mail isn't in our mailbox, then it can't be stolen. We'll have to go down and pick it up every day for a few weeks, but given that we're about to receive a whole bunch of new financial information in the mail, it's worth it.

3. Call all of your credit card issuers, cancel them and have new cards with a new account number issued. (My husband, who's never lived without a credit card being available, felt like he was walking on a tightrope. I encouraged him to take a walk on the "wild side!" <grin>) Capital One and Discover get high marks for their customer assistance. Providian didn't make the grade. Their customer service telephone number doesn't work after business hours not even to report a lost or stolen card. Needless to say, we're going to get rid of that card.

4. Call all companies with which you have banking, investment or retirement accounts. Thieves are not beyond attempting to wire transfer funds out of your investment account, particularly if they have all of your account information out of your mail. The safest thing to do is to open new accounts and transfer all of the assets from your old accounts to your new accounts. If that can't be done, you should arrange to password protect your account from any changes. Datek Online, Quick & Reilly and Vanguard get very high marks for their customer assistance. We were less than impressed with Salomon Smith Barney, which has a computer system that is so old that they can't flag an account to require a password. They also don't require much in the way of identifying information when you call them. The account representative actually told us that "all telephone calls are taped" and that "they prosecute to the fullest extent of the law" blah blah blah. I then told him that while that was very nice, we certainly didn't want to deal with the fall out from such a problem. We're not going to worry about this account, however, because we're going to transfer everything out of it. (Salomon also rapes their customers on commissions. Unfortunately, we're captive and have to leave the account open as it is linked to a benefit my husband receives through his employer.)

In addition, you will have to pay attention to any automatic payments that may be made from your old bank accounts. You will have to stop those and set up new ones from your new bank account. Pay particular attention to this as your creditors will not be happy if their payments bounce!

5. Call all of your utilities and inform them of the fraud. If you can't get a new account number issued, try to have them password protect the account. This won't always be possible, but at least you will have informed them of the fraud.

Here are some of the most useful links that you can peruse, should you ever need to read up on this subject:

http://www.consumer.gov/idtheft/
http://www.privacyrights.org/identity.htm
http://www.usdoj.gov/criminal/fraud/idtheft.html
http://www.dca.ca.gov/legal/p-3.html

6. You can also file a complaint with the FTC. The FTC serves as the federal clearinghouse for complaints by victims of identity theft. While the FTC does not resolve individual consumer problems, your complaint helps us investigate fraud, and can lead to law enforcement action. The FTC enters Internet, telemarketing, identity theft and other fraud-related complaints into Consumer Sentinel, a secure, online database available to hundreds of civil and criminal law enforcement agencies worldwide. You can make your complaint online.
 
I'm hoping that the steps we took today will nip this problem in the bud, but we'll have to keep checking our credit reports every few months.

I hope this never happens to you, but if it does, hopefully this will help.

CCSand