"THIS IS THE KIND OF STUFF THAT ONLY HAPPENS TO OTHER PEOPLE"
I got a call from a company called Bill Me Later on October 9th 2010. It was a very pleasant, professional courtesy call thanking me for my patronage, for signing up, and for making purchases from Walmart.com. I very much appreciated this call, but not because of their professionalism or courtesy.
I appreciated it most because I didn't open this account.
I told the employee that I was not the person that opened this account, or made purchases on Walmart.com, and they filed a fraud investigation. This was disturbing at the very least, but I'd had run-ins with little thefts over the last few years, including my business debit card being replicated and used in a "gas scam" across Texas. I still have no idea how they got my card, but it was extremely easy to remedy: cancel the card and get a new one.
This call from Bill Me Later, however, was only the tip of the iceberg - and I slowly began to discover that those precious strings of numbers and letters so often taken for granted but that effectively represent your existence in the real world had been totally, cleanly, and irrovocably stolen. My "identity" was on the run and being spread around the black market community. It had escaped my possession and will never come back home.
Because this seemed so isolated I didn't react as quickly as I could have, and it still took me several days before I could honestly accept the gravity of my situation. Somehow, in some way that is apparently "easy" for crooks, but a mystery to us generally law-abiding citizens, this person or people had gotten a hold of:
- My full name
- My complete address
- My cell and home phone numbers (even I don't know my home phone number)
- My social security number
- My email address
- A duplicate one of my credit cards
In the approximately five days that this information was being used freely they managed to successfully open and use credit for purchases with BillMeLater.com, Victoria's Secret, Chase Mastercard, a furniture company called West Elm, Pottery Barn, Williams Sonoma, Pac Sun, HSBC Bank and Best Buy - and they managed to make a copy of one of my credit cards to use it to have dinner at a restaurant called "K24" - less than a mile from my apartment. This was a real kick in the teeth. This means it was someone local, and they were pissing in my front yard. Each purchase was generally worth about $600 in purchases, almost entirely "e-gift cards" mailed to a fraudulent email address, with the notable exception of a care package that I received in the mail from Victoria's Secret. I guess my admirerer wanted me to have a pink teddy. Thanks.
Additionally, once I finally accepted that my identity had been stolen, which only took two days from the time I received the first call, I was advised to call Experian and put a fraud alert on my credit account. This means that for the seven years any inquiry into my credit for purposes of opening a new account would be rejected, which is inconvenient for the thieves - but also highly inconvenient for me as well. If I ever want to apply for credit with anyone I can no longer just apply and get cleared - the actual issuing bank will need to verify my identity via mail. This, of course, will take days for turnaround. And I get to deal with this now well into my 40's.
At this point I decided that I needed to treat this like I would any job, and I bit into the task with the ferocity of a pitbull on angel dust. I researched everything, began keeping a log of the many notification letters I received and notes of my actions on each one, spent hours on the phone with the creditors, filed a police report with the LAPD, filled out affidavits and put them all in a file that is now nearly one inch thick. I also joined a service through the Auto Club called ProtectMyID.com, a service offered by Experian that will monitor all activity on my credit as well as assist with the fraud investigation. This service, dicounted through AAA, is only $7/month, a cost that had seemed silly to take on prior to this event, but now seems like an incredibly great deal considering that the amount of time I've now devoted to this project has been equivalent to a part-time job.
Even with all of this protection in place I continued to receive letters from creditors that were to verify my identity for credit applications - though this meant that my stops were working it still meant that these guys were still out there using my information. I found out from Bloomingdales that someone had physically gone into several stores and filled out credit applications in person, and some places where I already had existing accounts - they were allowed to change my information to their own email and physical addresses.
All of this has been up to me to fix, and while it will not cost me actual money, it is going to cost me time and hassle for the next seven years. It wasn't until I realized this that I started to feel truly violated. I have been stolen from and broken into multiple times in my adult life; had car radios and other possessions lifted from me, windows broken and even someone that completely empied my car of possessions - including the change from my center console and an old winter coat. These all left me feeling a bit out of sorts, but theft of this kind goes far deeper than the simple replacement of possessions. This will affect my life for years to come.
I am especially sensitive about this because I've spent the last four years trying to fix my credit and get it to a point where creditors would accept my "identity" as trustworthy. I even entered a debt management program to pay off the debt that youth acquired - and I had only finished paying all this off in January. Over the last four years my credit has gone from a 620 to a 760 - an achivement which was very difficult and that I am quite proud of - and now this mark is going to live on into the next decade of my life. It makes me want to scream.
All so these petty crooks can get some Best Buy gift cards. It is really amazing what people like this will do in order to avoid actual work. I want them to be set on fire and watch them dance until they die.
To all of you who are reading this, I cannot begin to describe just how important it is that you put in place a simple credit monitoring service to protect your information. This is not just something that happens to other people, or something that you read about on Google News - this happens to people all over the world every day - and it is a mighty pain in the ass. It affects you in ways that you will not be able to predict, and more deeply than you can imagine. If you like to function normally in this world of meta-data, you need to protect your information as though it were your most valuable possession. In the end, that is all you really are.
Set yourself up for constant credit monitoring - it's cheap and worth the alternative. For you to benefit from my plight, however, here is a list of things that you should do immediately should you suspect that someone is illegally using your information. Do not hesitate, just do it immediately.
- Set yourself up with an account on http://www.protectmyid.com/. If you suspect someone is using your identity for evil, call them immediately and they will help you file all your claims as well as research all the information from inside a credit bureau.
- File a report with all three credit bureau's. If you file with any one of them your report is supposed to propegate through all three of them, but don't take a chance. Experian, TransUnion, and Equifax. Call all three or go to their websites to register your information.
- Go down to your local police station and file a report in person. Do not call them. Go there and deal with it eye to eye. Then follow up with the cops regularly to continue to get information from them and give them any information that you come up with.
- Get a copy of the police report as quickly as you can, many companies will need a copy of it for their records.
- Keep a concise log everyone you talk to, get a name, record the date and time, and what you talked about. Keep any mail that you get and write what you did about it on the letter, and keep track of any resolutions or next actions.
- File a report with the Federal Trade Commission, this can be done easily on their website.
- File a report with ChexSystems, this will prevent someone from trying to open a bank or checking account using your information. This can also be easily done on their website.
- Monitor your credit constantly for several months after the damage has been settled. This information can be sold or traded on black market chat rooms for the rest of your life. Most likely as these are short-term minded people, the information will be discarded once flagged (they won't want to wait seven years to get more Best Buy gift cards) - but you must be vigilant about it because no one else will be.
Thanks for reading.
J Logan, Customer Service Avenger