This is a reprint of an article originally published in January of 2008.
September 23, 2004. That was the day I discovered that someone had stolen my identity. I’ll reveal who it was later in this article, but you’ll be surprised, believe me. Several nights earlier, my wife and I returned home to discover a message on our answering machine from American Express, asking me to call to discuss my “outstanding balance.” After a little chuckle, I told my wife they must have loaded the wrong phone number into their automatic dialer because we didn’t have an American Express card. “Don’t worry about it,” I said. I never suspected I was the victim of identity theft.
A few nights later, we received another message and my wife started getting suspicious. I was out of town the next day when she called and asked if I was sitting down.
She had called American Express to let them know we didn’t have an American Express card but they wouldn’t talk to her since she wasn’t on the account. She did get the person on the line to tell her the account address, though. When she told me, I knew immediately who it was: an estranged family member who had knowledge of my Social Security number and birth date. As kids we had noticed that our Social Security numbers were very similar and I suppose this person had always remembered it. He had stolen my identity.
I had no idea what to do. Crime victims experience a severe feeling of helplessness and I was was no different. I called AmEx and told them what I suspected. They immediately shut everything down and gave me the phone numbers to all three credit bureaus to close the door on any further credit fraud. Generally, you’re only liable for the first $50 but they voluntarily waived it. I cannot praise the people at American Express enough. They were absolutely fabulous to deal with and every person I spoke with was over the top with helpful suggestions and encouragement.
Did I mention that I had no idea what to do? Since it was a crime against me in another state, I called the FBI and asked what I should do. One of their Special Agents told me to file a complaint locally, so I went to my local police station and filed the complaint. Since I had moved several states away, the detective told me that things would move along better if I filed a complaint in the city where the crime occurred. Fortunately, I knew another detective in that city and I informed him that I would be pressing charges. It was a bit ironic that this detective, the identity thief, and I were all neighbors as kids.
The detective opened an investigation, got the proper warrants, and told me the purchases were for restaurant meals, movies, gasoline, and some Internet purchases. The last attempted purchase was for a television!. Needless to say, my anger level was rising. Since the American Express account was shut down, this person applied for another AmEx card, then applied at Capital One, then at Advanta BankCorp. Fortunately, I had placed a security freeze on my credit report and no additional cards were issued.
After the investigation was completed, this person was arrested and later plead guilty to avoid jail time. In the State of Alabama, a second offense is a mandatory 10 years in jail so I doubt this person will do it again I took one additional step to insure I’m not caught off guard again by signing up for Equifax Credit Watch Gold. Yes, it is a ongoing expense for me but it buys peace of mind. Plus, it allows me to pull my Equifax credit report an unlimited number of times. That’s a nice bonus.
If you discover your identity has been stolen, here are some steps you should quickly take:
- FIRST – Contact the three major credit bureaus and put a freeze on your credit account. I’ve included their links here because phone numbers change. Equifax, Transunion, and Experian are the “big three” credit bureaus. Each of them has a link for identity theft, but if you have any problems, email me and I’ll give you the phone numbers I called to put the security freeze on my credit record.
- SECOND – File a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission by clicking this link. Write down your complaint reference number and keep it in a safe place.
- THIRD – File a complaint with your local police and with the police in the area the crime occurred if possible. This isn’t always feasible, but it is a good idea. Once you have a conviction, you can begin the repair process. Be sure to give the police your FTC complaint number.
- FOURTH – Get a copy of your credit report. Go to annual credit report. Yes, it really IS free.
- FIFTH – Call every credit issuer on your report and tell them what is happening. Be sure you go ahead and call those that were defrauded by the identity thief, too.
- Get an accordion file. You’re going to need it.
- Document everything. Write down the name and extension number of every single person you talk with, detectives, reps from the credit card company, everyone. No exceptions. Keep this information in your accordion file.
- Mail all documents “certified, return receipt requested.” This way you have proof that you sent the documents and who signed for them.
- Make copies of everything you send to anyone. Keep your originals if possible.
- Decide if you will press charges. Depending on your personal situation, this can be a stressful time, especially if the criminal is a family member like it was in my situation. Just remember, you did nothing wrong and you must rebuild your credit. In my case, the only way to get the 4 inquiries removed from my credit file was to have a guilty plea or conviction.
- Be prepared for this to take a long time to clear up. Don’t give up though. You’ll get through it eventually.
Identity theft is a growing problem and it doesn’t show signs of letting up. Millions of people are affected every year. I was affected by someone applying for a credit card in my name, but credit card fraud makes up only 60% of ID theft. Checking accounts, savings accounts, phone service, Internet payment accounts, even medical insurance is subject to ID theft.
Other than credit monitoring services, what else can you do? I suggest you follow the FTC’s suggestions. Summarizing their site,
- DETER thieves by protecting your personal information and credit.
- DETECT thieves by monitoring your accounts and credit. You can get one copy of your credit report FREE here.
- DEFEND against thieves by taking appropriate actions if you suspect illegal activity on your credit file.
Conclusion: In my heart, I forgave the person who stole my identity. But actions have consequences and I did press charges. Identity theft is a class C felony in Alabama and this person got three years probation. I sincerely hope this never happens again. Getting my credit file back in order was a pain in the neck and I’ll have to pay for credit monitoring for who knows how long? Identity theft can haunt you for a long time. Take the necessary precautions now.
And pray it never happens because of a family member’s selfishness.