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September/1/2011

Identity Theft - It Can Happen to Anyone By Donna B. Heinrichs

Identity Theft ~ It Can Happen to Anyone
By Donna B. Heinrichs, Schrade & Heinrichs

From the September 2011 Newsletter)

This article is written to share with my colleagues an experience I have just been through involving identity theft.  If I can be a victim of identity theft, anyone can.  I am not easily duped, I am extremely careful with my personal information, I do not fall for “phishing” emails, and I have become a victim.  If it can happen to me, it can happen to anyone.  My (very upsetting) experience follows:

Background:

Several years ago, I opened a checking account with a large bank.  The purpose of opening this account was so that I could easily transfer money to my daughter who lives at a distance and who had an account with the same bank. I assist her financially.  I set up a checking account whereby, with the click of a button, I could transfer funds from my own account to hers without resorting to the mails.  I never wrote a check on this account, never used the debit card on this account, never put the account number on the internet, never put this card into a machine to obtain funds, and never used the debit card at all since it was issued.  In effect, it was a dead card.

When I opened this checking account, I was given a debit card.  I do not like debit cards, and I won’t use one because they are instantaneous.  However, I was told that the card “went with the territory” so I accepted it, put it in my dresser drawer, destroyed the PIN number, never knew the PIN, and basically forgot about it.

Unlike a credit card, a debit card gives one access to your checking account immediately and actually removes your funds from that account.  It is quite difficult to stop a debit transaction once it has been authorized.  Apparently, it can also be used as a credit card under certain circumstances. 

In late June I attempted to check the funds on the internet to see what my balance was in this particular account.  My password was rejected, and I was faced with many other questions to determine my identity.  One of the questions was, “Did I have a debit card and what was the account number?”  I retrieved the debit card from my drawer, typed in the account number, and the next question asked for the PIN which I did not know.  Consequently, I could not access my bank account on line.

Subsequently, I called the phone number on the back of the debit card and reached a person from the issuing bank.  She gave me a temporary password so I could access my account on line, then asked if I would like a new PIN.  I said yes; send me a new pin, even though I don’t use it, because I should know it in the event this happens again.

This bank employee asked me for all of the information on my debit card, including the account number, the expiration date, and the security code on the back of the card, which I gave her.  Big mistake.

Three weeks after I gave out this information, someone went on the internet and purchased laptop computers, jewelry, etc. to be delivered to an apartment house in Orlando, FL to an apartment number on the lower level that did not, in fact, exist.

Next, there were two large (very expensive) Edible Arrangements, one ordered in Melbourne, FL and one ordered in Orlando, FL to be delivered to certain persons, one of which was the thief’s sister.  Thus began my own investigation and Facebook, US Search, Checkmate, etc. were invaluable tools to me in this investigation. This matter was reported to local authorities both where I reside and also in Melbourne, FL and Orlando, FL.  I also reported this matter to the CEO of the bank and was put in touch with his chief assistant who launched an internal investigation. 

After obtaining all of the shipping information from the merchants (which was like pulling teeth) and following all of the clues (including temporary email addresses and an unlisted phone number brazenly left with one merchant) and spending about 40 hours on the internet, I zeroed in on a prime suspect.  I paid for the information on the unlisted phone number.  All I had was a last name and first initial.  After much digging, I learned that it was a 44-year old woman from Florida who had several aliases, who had stolen the identity of another professional, and who had also put herself on Utube with a sob story about what a “nice woman she was” and how desperate she was for money, begging people to send her a check to her P.O. box in Florida, even if for only one dollar.  (Nice way to get names, addresses, and bank account numbers.)

Issues:

The problem with identity theft is that the crimes are multi-jurisdictional, often involving multiple law enforcement agencies.  I have learned that identity theft is quite sophisticated, time consuming to investigate, and is simply not a priority among law enforcement.  It will probably not become a priority until it reaches the heights of what Bernie Madoff did.   However, I have learned a lot through this experience, and the purpose of this article is to share what I have learned.

The first thing I did was to make a complaint to local law enforcement and to law enforcement authorities where the crime occurred.  I was then directed to file a complaint on line with the FBI at www.ic3.gov.  Once you have done that, you are sent a complaint ID number and a password whereby you can update your complaint with additional information you may subsequently obtain.  However, the site is quite explicit in informing you that they do not actively “investigate” complaints, they receive thousands of complaints weekly, and this is pretty much a central reporting agency.

You can also file a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission at www.ftccomplaintassistant.gov.  Hopefully, you will get some help there but I wouldn’t hold my breath.

I was told I should place a “fraud alert” with the three credit reporting agencies:  Equifax, TransUnion and Experian.  There are different kinds of fraud alerts.  Some are as short as 90 days, some as long as seven years.  Everyone wants your money, however.  You can pay for a fraud alert, or you can obtain a copy of your police report, send it to one of the credit reporting agencies, and obtain a seven-year fraud alert ostensibly without charge.  (Haven’t tried this yet).  The issue then becomes:  “Do you trust those credit-reporting companies and their employees?”  because they want a lot of personal identifying information so that you can prove you are you.  However, if you have the fraud alert, and someone tries to open an account in your name, you ostensibly will know before things get out of hand and you have a full-blown identity theft problem on your hands.

Conclusion:

In my opinion, identity theft will open a whole new area of practice to attorneys and private investigators.  It may even become somewhat of a specialty in the future.  It is thriving and shows no signs of waning.  It is totally unsettling because it strikes at the heart of the person, and who that person is.  It is flourishing because it is so difficult to detect and is not a priority among law enforcement.

I hope this article has given my colleagues some insight into this growing problem and methods to combat it.  If it happens to you, you must be prepared to do most of the legwork and to take steps to protect yourself,  Because it often involves internet transactions, the crime is multi-jurisdictional and the assistance you should expect to receive will be fragmented and quite limited.  The bottom line is “protect yourself.”  Law enforcement is overwhelmed and this crime is escalating.  Be ever vigilant.  If it could happen to me, it could happen to anyone.






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