Need a Plot? Confessions of an Identity Theft Victim

ccsOh yeah. It happened to me a few months ago. It’s horrific, it’s ongoing and the system is set up to keep the thief’s identity a secret from you. No joke. If you’re looking for a plot, feel free to take these personal details of my life.

Confession #1: I never saw the Melissa McCarthy/Jason Bateman movie about identity theft. I can’t imagine how they made this life-altering, helpless violation humorous.

Confession #2: I’m one of those people who thought it’d never happen to me, so I’ve carelessly and freely given out personal information. I am Mrs. Casual about leaving my purse unzipped on my shoulder or plopping it in a shopping cart as I turn my back and 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 as 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 #3: 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.

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.computer

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.

K&T meConfession #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. The theft occurred moving from Houston to southwest FL. I defy you to find my new hometown on any media site. Because any new personal information is now locked up, like my ss#. And my trust in my fellow man.

About Sarah Andre

Romantic Suspense That Keeps You Up All Night! I live in sunny FL, love daydreaming, reading and chocolate. I write in the wee hours of the morning before my helpless hubby and 2 male Pomeranian pups awaken with their demands. :) My debut LOCKED, LOADED and LYING is available now.

Posted on December 16, 2014, in Criminal Profiling, Sarah Andre and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 37 Comments.

  1. Ugh, Sarah. This is awful! I’m so sorry all of this happened. Maybe I will sign up for one of those services you mentioned. I did have my bank card stolen – the number, not the card – and they racked up $1500 in just a few hours. But we happened to be on our bank’s website and noticed the pending charges popping up and were able to cancel. After reading your story, I now realize how lucky we were that nothing else happened (knock on wood!!!).

  2. If I can help ANYONE learn ANYTHING then my job here is done. 😉

    I visited an acquaintance in Houston last week who’d just come back from his honeymoon. He said he’d given his debit card info to the cruise line he and his wife were honeymooning on and when they rented bikes on an island the clerk asked which cruise line and cabin # they were in (which he thought was odd, but gave anyway.)

    His acct was drained within hours of reboarding. All the transactions said Such and Such Cruise Line. The poor newlyweds had not booked a return flight beforehand and had to take a Greyhound bus from FL to Houston because that’s all the money they had left on them.

  3. Ohhhhhh, CRAP! I am so so sorry this happened to you, Sarah.

    I get calls like this from people frequently, and the FIRST thing I tell them is “File a Police Report, NOW!” Documentation is everything in a case like this, and it helps to have that case number handy.

    Another thing I would suggest is monitor your back accounts daily if possible, every other day at minimum, for the next year or so. Back in 2004, my ATM number got duplicated and there charges for an “exotic boutique” in Orlando, FL. We got that straightened out, and then two years later (after an emergency run to a 24 hour vet clinic) the MasterCard I used there was suddenly racking up thousands in “Nordstrom Gift Cards”. As I have never in my life set foot in a Nordstrom’s, that was easy to deflect.

    Most importantly, keep careful notes of all phone conversations! GET THE NAME of the person you speak with. If they will only give you their first name (which a lot of companies have as policy) then demand an extension number or their Employee Number.

    Ironically, even in the New Millennium, paperwork is the BEST defense.

  4. Sarah, I am so, so sorry this happened to you.
    I’ve had phone cards and credit card numbers stolen where people racked up thousands of dollars. But I’ve always been able to fix it fairly quickly.
    Then we were caught up in the Marshalls, Target and Home Depot messes.
    I have credit monitoring now with Experian but do you think something like Lifelock is worth it?

    I hope this nightmare is over for you!

    • From what I understand (my husband did an in depth research on the 3 Credit Agencies and LifeLock) they basically offer the same service.

  5. Ugh! Ugh, ugh, ugh. What a nightmare. So very sorry this happened to you and so glad there were plenty of good things this year to offset the bad!

  6. Sarah, what a dreadful experience! Thank you for sharing the details with us. It’s almost a new form of terrorism and impacts our lives, our sanity, and our nation’s economy daily. Why doesn’t the government do something about this? Especially state govs with the drivers license thing? Please copy your post into an email and send it to all your state reps.

    Sending you a giant hug,
    Diana

    • I think the thing that surprised me most through all of this, Diana, was the matter of fact manner the Fraud Depts had. Like it was just the cost of doing business. Just another call to them.

      • Yes, Sarah, I encountered the exact same attitude regarding the IRS tax fraud guy. They targeted two of my family members and I just got the runaround trying to report it. After literally days of making calls I got absolutely nowhere. No one even wanted to take a report because we hadn’t actually lost money. So when they compile statistics about how many people had been approached, they only have a fraction of targeted victims.

        A month later two detectives from a local police fraud division spoke at one of my writers’ group. The way they sort of chuckled over the misfortunes of others and didn’t seem to give a darn when people fell for scams really annoyed me. In fact one fellow gleefully told about how someone needed a police report to mitigate their situation with the bank, and how he refused to give it to him.

        It’s my opinion we need a federal task force to set up some protocols that hopefully states will also adopt.

  7. Sarah, this is just awful–a total nightmare. So very sorry it happened to you. I am thinking way more seriously about signing on to LifeLock now!!! Thank you for sharing so that we can all learn from your experience.

  8. Oh, my. What a pain the a$$ to have to go through all that. How awful.

    • Yeah. I remember saying the ‘a$$’ word quite a few times in the weeks that followed.
      😉
      Thanks for commenting, Abbie.

  9. Damn, what a horrible experience, Sarah! So sorry to hear you had to go through hell to get your affairs in order after your wallet was stolen. But thanks for giving us a lesson about both prevention and how to handle such a loss. Turkey con artists…gosh they work fast!

    Hope you can relax, now and enjoy the holidays. After the New Year I want to catch up with you, too! (So fun to see Carey at the Bouchercon…wish you’d been there, too!) Rolynn

  10. Sarah what a nightmare. Thanks so much for sharing all this great info. When I come out from my deadline cave I’m going to look into this. And you know, as I placed my purse in my unlocked car in my open garage and went back inside to gather more things together, I remember thinking I shouldn’t. But no one will ever take MY things? Right?

    • RIGHT!
      You should see how neurotic I am with my possessions now. I look like I have a tucked football under my arm, charging down the field instead of wandering the isles of a grocery store.

  11. Sarah, I’m so sorry this happened to you. One scary thing I heard recently from a cyber security analyst is that it’s not a matter of if but when. This will happen to all of us eventually, but not to such a degree. Having spent some time dealing with credit card companies and T-Mobile just for routine business and I think I’d go mad if I had to call all of the ones you listed. Thanks for sharing your story.

    • I agree, Manda. That would make a great thriller plot. We all wake up one morning and find no money in our banks. None of us. All Americans are penniless because of a cyber attack on banks.

  12. I’m so sorry this happened to you, Sarah. I’ve seen features on news magazine TV shows, telling of people buying houses with stolen ID. Sometimes the fallout lasts for years. It’s so scary. I’m glad yours is now “contained.”

    I’ve refused to give out my SS# for years now, even though I know it’s already “out there.” Years ago it was common for schools and the military to use it for ID numbers.

    When I moved and needed to start services in my new location, two companies refused to deliver service if I wouldn’t provide my SS# (we know this is so they can run a credit check on me). Oh, yes, well, if you want to give us $300 deposit then we won’t need your SS number. So that’s what I did. (After a year, both companies applied the deposit to my bill, and all happened as it should.) But it’s irritating. The #1 advice I hear in the media by experts is to NOT give out your SS number, yet businesses and agencies continue to require it.

    I shred all mail addresses, even though I feel it’s pointless, since addresses are easily obtained. Yet that’s something those “experts” advise. And when I polled about 10 friends gathered together, ALL said they shredded. So I continue to shred.

    • I shred too, Sheri. Even put the pieces into different trash bags.

      A friend in Houston gets social security checks. When I told her about my ss# being found out somehow she whipped out her gov issued ID…if you’re on Social Security the government issues the card WITH your number right on it. Duh.

  13. Sarah, I’m so sorry you’re having to go through this. Thanks for sharing your story though. I’m sure we can all learn from it.

    I’ve been fairly careful about this stuff since one of my information systems professors had a PI friend show just how much info they could get on you with very little personal data. Then the fraud lecture during my citizens police academy convinced me to shred everything (especially pre-filled applications for credit, or those with a special application code “just for you”).

    I’m shocked that restaurants in the US still require us to hand our card to someone who disappears with it to who knows where. In the UK they bring the card scanner to your table and the whole transaction happens right there in front of you.

    It took the military and a lot of motor vehicle departments until just a few years ago to finally quit putting people’s SSNs on IDs. For a few years before that the DOD would let you leave it off, but you had to ask, and it still had the sponsor’s (active duty member) number on it. They still use it for some things.

    Anyway, good luck getting this resolved, and thank you for the tips on how to handle it if we’re unlucky. Hugs.

    • Thanks Gwen! Actually my husband’s ss# WAS in the wallet for the reason you stated above (insurance needs his number) so he covered himself weeks before we found out that I was the one being attacked.

  14. Oh, the horror, Sarah! Thanks for sharing your cautionary tale with us.

  15. Unfortunately, Law Enforcement still considers this a ‘victimless crime’ and we can agree they have more critical things to deal with…. until it happens to YOU.

    The first time it happened to me, I called a friend at the FBI and was *one step* from insisting the HRT be deployed to Orlando to track these m#%$*@^!&%S down! (Yes, I was *that* angry).

    All you can really do is keep careful track of everyone you speak to, and back it up with documentation. LifeLock…well, you can do the same thing they can. I’d remind everyone the CEO of LifeLock dared hackers to get his SSN and private information… and it took a group over in Russia less than 10 hours to do so.

    Doing it yourself is less expensive and you KNOW it’s been done.

  16. Well that is horrific. Thank you for sharing Sarah and making us all a little wiser.

  17. Thanks for sharing this, Sarah! What an awful way to learn a lesson though.

  18. Ugh, Sarah. I’m so sorry you had to deal with this. Thanks so much for sharing your experience so we can all learn from your nightmare.

  19. Wow this is very scary. My bank is always urging me to go online and have my statements that way. It seems with a stolen Driver’s license you could access that too. I still don’t understand how the cruise and cabin number gave the guy credit information unless he hacked their credit information?

    • All we can think is they kept ‘charging’ his cruise-cabin for services and merchandise. You gave you cc or debit at the beginning of the ship and then could charge ON the ship or out in some of the stores on the island.

      Literally as he was sitting in the chair with the bank rep she said ‘there went another $500!”

      All the money went to ” __Cruise Lines” immediately since it was a debit card, but it was not for anything they bought.

  20. Sarah ~ so sorry, lady. Since visiting with you, I’ve been diligent about zipping/snapping purse closed, putting strap over shoulder AND tucking it under my arm. I’m a positive soul, and believe the majority of folks we meet are decent. But I know evil exists and thrives in the black soul of others. It’s a shame that we must protect ourselves, but we must. May this nasty fade out of your life quickly and with no more drama than you’ve already had to face. Loved seeing you!!

  21. Cripes! Lesson learned at your expense, Sarah. Report to the police immediately! Cancel everything immediately! Contact the three credit agencies immediately! Call Sarah for commiseration immediately! So sorry this happened to you. (((hugs)))

    Still…when you are not so fit to be tied, see the McCarthy/Bateman movie. It really is funny.

  22. So sorry this happened to you, Sarah. Especially during moving, when things are stressful enough. I had my purse stolen in a store a few years back and did exactly what you did, I cancelled my credit cards and thought that was enough. I did also call the police though and apparently this is so common that I was transferred to a department that handled everything over the phone. They told me to call a service to flag my social security number and I’m so glad I did. The thief tried to open several different cell phone accounts and applied for several store credit cards. I’m still so mad about this, now years later, that just typing this message has me upset again.

    Maybe we should put these experiences into a plot, that way we can get the anger out of our system. 🙂

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