May 6, 2016
I’d like to introduce the ENALR readers to a new friend of mine, Sarah Andre.
Sarah is a talented author. You’ll see that when you read her books Locked, Loaded and Lying and Tall, Dark and Damaged, but I met Sarah when I read a blog post she’d written. I’d heard stories on the news and the internet about Identity Theft, but I dismissed them. That could never happen to me. After I read Sarah’s 10 confessions, I realized it could very easily happen to any of us.
This is such an important subject and Sarah has kindly agreed to let me post her article.
Confession #1: I’m one of those people who thought it’d never happen to me, so I carelessly gave out personal information. I was Mrs. Casual about leaving my purse unzipped on my shoulder or plopping it in a shopping cart as I turned my back to bag tomatoes. In the game of chance, this was bound to finally happen.
In this instance I’d stuck the open purse on the hook of a Tallahassee hotel trolley while my husband and I loaded suitcases from the room onto the cart. I never saw one hotel occupant or employee pass our room as we loaded that cart. No one shared an elevator down to the lobby. When I hoisted my purse again at the car I instantly knew, by the much lighter weight, that my wallet was gone. To this day I do not know how it was accomplished. But my debit card was used for gas half an hour later (while I was still tearing through suitcases and taking the room apart looking for the wallet.) Why did I not instantly assume it was stolen? Because again: that would never happen to me!
Confession #2: I didn’t know the meaning of real identity theft. Like most of us, I’ve had a credit card ‘used’ at a store in another state/country and the bank called asking if I was presently at that store. “No, I’m not,” I answered, outraged, “and the card is still in my possession.” That’s what I thought of as “identity theft.” And in my defense, you hear the term so often it loses it’s terrifying impact. Huge companies are inundated with breaches in their cyber security and the nightly news helpfully keeps us in a constant state of fear that our “personal information” has probably just been stolen. I heard a stat last night that 45% of the nation have had someone illegally use their credit card.
Confession #3: After immediately canceling credit cards (right there in the hotel parking lot at 6am) I figured that’s all I needed to do. It never occurred to me any other harm could come from the theft. Oh, I was annoyed they’d gotten some Christmas gift cards I hadn’t gotten around to using. And now I was without my Sam’s card, AAA, driver’s license, car and health insurance cards…all inconveniences. But if they’d planned on shopping with my AX and 2 Visas they were in for quite a surprise! They had my debit card but not my PIN. Shrug. We got in the car and drove off. In hindsight, that was the biggest mistake we made. Driving away from the scene of a crime and not calling the Tallahassee police and filing a report. Never occurred to us because we thought we’d handled it.
Confession #4: I had no idea that once a thief has access to the information on your driver’s license, getting your social security number is a snap. Did they con a government official or hack into the social security system? I’m not stupid enough to carry that precious number out in public, and providing your social security is the only way you can apply for credit cards.
Confession #5: Because of the combined idiotic naiveté listed above, I was utterly shocked when Capitol One called me a few weeks later asking if I’d applied for their credit card.
And that’s when the real horror started.
The second I was off the phone my husband enrolled me in one of the 3 Credit Reporting Agencies (Equifax, TransUnion and Experain.) They have a service very similar to LifeLock. The customer rep immediately walked me through how to ‘lock down’ my social security number. If anyone were to use it from that moment forward it sends a red flag to the company to call me and ask if I just applied for a credit card.
Confession #6: I had no idea I could sign up for this service any day of the week, without an emergency like a stolen wallet. Small fee ($99) for 6 months of a watchdog service. You can even order them to alert you if your credit card balance increases by–you give them the $ range. Example: $200 increase triggers an email/text alert. (Happy Christmas shopping.)
Conveniently the 3 companies ‘talk’ to each other, so you pay one, but get information from all 3 immediately. There’s a link that lets you see all 3 Reporting Agencies lists of credit cards you have taken out in the last 3 years. (None, btw. Mine should have been a blank page.)
And this is what I saw: all within one day my social security and name had applied for cc’s to Target, Best Buy, Loews, Home Depot, Capitol One, Citibank, Wells Fargo, Northern Tool, T-Mobile and H.H. Gregg.
Conveniently, this link also provides toll-free numbers for each of these companies. Inconveniently, these numbers are not the Fraud Department. Fraud Dept numbers are also not listed on any of the websites.
Confession #7: I thought a 2-3 minute call per company would clear up each case. Uh…no. I think my fastest call to shut a card down was 20 minutes. Average was more like 40 minutes. Why? Because I’d get in the mechanical loop of ‘if I want ___ dept, please press one now.’ None featured a magical number to get the Fraud Dept. Inevitably I chose Customer Service. Spilled my sorry tale. Most put me on hold because they did not know what to do or say! Eventually they provided a different toll-free number. Sometimes it was right, sometimes I would be transferred several times before reaching the Fraud Dept. Sometimes, I would get disconnected and have to start over. On average I’d tell my sorry tale to 3 company representatives before I heard, “I can help you with that.”
Confession #8: When a Fraud Dept tells you they have nothing listed under your ss#, but the Credit Reporting Agencies have that company listed, do NOT assume the Credit Agencies are wrong. T-Mobile told me nothing showed up and reiterated this quite sharply when I argued that they were listed as a company being defrauded by someone using my name, address and ss#. What could I do but thank her and hang up?
It was the last of the companies I had to call that very long afternoon, and in exhaustion and frustration I gave up. But it preyed on me that someone was wrong…the company or credit agency. I called T-Mobile a week later and explained to another Fraud rep that I’d spoken to his colleague and she’d checked my ss# and seen nothing. Could he please check again? After looking up the ss# he said with resignation and dread: “Oh they got you all right. They got you good.” 4 T-Mobile phones and 4 T-Mobile phone numbers.
In the end the thief or thieves got away with $2,000 of goods by forging a check at Sam’s (who does not return canceled checks to your bank. I have to think the thieves knew that.) Over $2,000 at Home Depot because they applied for instant credit AT the checkout register. $47 worth of gas on my debit card (while I was still searching the hotel for the wallet.) No PIN needed if you’re using it as a cc. God knows how much T-Mobile ate. $2600 at H.H. Gregg, a store I’d never even heard of and they, like T-Mobile, do not show my ss# in their system still. But it’s listed on all 3 Agencies sites.
Confession #9: I figured the companies being defrauded and eating these charges would pony up information on the thief. Nope. Once in awhile the rep would slip up and give me an area code on the application. One actually felt sorry for me and told me the purchases occurred at 2 stores in Miami. 4 T-Mobile Welcome letters finally showed up in the mail with 4 phone numbers and they were Miami area codes. ALL companies ask if I’d called the Tallahassee police and opened a case file so they could add their information about the thieves. Oops. (We tried to report it weeks later and it fell on deaf ears.)
Confession #10: The easiest, most logical step to stop this was impossible. I called the Texas DPS to ask them to flag or cancel my license. She apologized and said there was no way to do that. There was actually nothing they could do to alert any companies or other states’ police departments that my license was being used for nefarious purposes. Her exact words were: “I’m sorry, you’ll just have to wait until the license expires.”
So if you are looking for a plot I give full permission to use my experience. You’ll need a character who has a specific world view in the beginning, (i.e., naïve-‘nothing like this will ever happen to ME’) then goes through the wringer and comes out at the end of the story an altered person… like my trust in my fellow man.
Sarah’s website, newsletter or FB Author Page. Keep in touch. 🙂
Her first book is Locked, Loaded and Lying and is available now. Her second book, Tall, Dark and Damaged will be out the end of this month, so watch for it.
BIO: Sarah Andre is the author of Locked, Loaded and Lying, her 2011 Golden Heart® nominated romantic suspense. She is publishing her 2014 GH nominated story under a new title: Tall, Dark and Damaged in late May, 2016. Sarah lives in serene Southwest Florida with her golf-fanatic husband and two naughty Pomeranians. Please don’t ask her to volunteer for anything because she doesn’t know how to say no and she’s really busy.