by Kelly Feser Eells
It wasn't so long ago that the phrase, "identity theft"
had an Orwellian ring to it. Unfortunately, it is now so prevalent
that it sounds about as futuristic as "carjacking"
or "armed robbery."
It is also, however, a crime that makes its victims feel "creepy."
Speaking on condition of anonymity, two local women who have
had their identity stolen five and three times, respectively,
offer their perspectives below.
Longtime Ojai resident Mary (whose last name is withheld by her
request) was contacted by a collections agency for payment of
five separate telephone accounts, all fraudulently set up in
her name and with her Social Security number.
"It started with a bill I got from Pacific Bell," said
Mary, "that had a number on it I'd never seen before."
Then, "After advising them that 'this isn't and never has
been my phone number,' I received a message a couple of months
ago," from a collections agency, advising her that she was
in arrears for over $1,000 in both Pacific Bell and Sprint telephone
Understandably alarmed, Mary decided to get her credit report.
Indeed, "after (the collections agency) started hounding
me," she ended up getting three of them - from Equifax,
Trans Union and Experian, formerly TRW, Inc., the three federally
authorized reporting bureaus - all of which confirmed her worst
suspicions: One or more unknown suspects had access to her Social
"There were all these fraudulent telephone accounts, all
set up with my Social Security number and name." And, aside
from the one, suspicious Pacific Bell bill Mary received, "all
these other bills had been going to other (people's) addresses,
some of them not even real, apparently."
She was further alarmed to discover that "this had been
going on since October of 2000."
With a half-serious shudder, Mary points to the fact that credit
officers at Sprint "told me that, before they even authorize
a new account, they check photo IDs. Which means that these people
were using their own pictures, providing fake papers," with
her personal information.
"There's not much you can do about it, either," she
said, explaining that even people who take every precaution -
shredding credit card "invitations," never giving personal
information over the telephone or Internet, etc., - are vulnerable
to identity theft.
Acknowledging that she's been "somewhat lucky; some people
are taken for tens of thousands of dollars," Mary adds that
her case, which local detectives have indicated is in Los Angeles
County's jurisdiction, will likely remain unsolved. "It
doesn't seem to matter how careful you are. All it takes is one
dishonest clerk, working at the phone company or the DMV or your
doctor's office (where everyone's practically known by his or
her Social Security number!) to steal your info and, well ..."
Kelly, another Ojai resident, finishes her thought: "...
ruin a heck of a lot more than your day."
Identity thieves have victimized the self-described "paranoid
consumer" three times in as many years, making unauthorized
purchases with her Visa, American Express and MasterCard accounts.
"And the ironic thing," she said, "is that Visa,
the only credit card I had with a photo ID, was the account most
ripped off - to the tune of almost a thousand dollars."
Still, it was Visa that alerted Kelly to the theft, not the other
way around. "When I first got their call, I thought, 'how
Big Brother of you,' questioning my buying habits. But then the
credit officer asked me if I'd made any recent purchases at three
'hip-hop stores' in Pomona and I got spooked for real.
'No, of course not,' I said."
As it turned out, someone else had, "and, over the course
of just two days, had bought himself $980 worth of stuff at these
three stores I'd never heard of, much less been within 100 miles
Kelly added that, "I ended up being extremely grateful for
Visa's 'Big Brotherly' ways. They made it a lot easier on me
than the people at American Express or MasterCard, who acted
like there was nothing strange about me being in Sweden or Venezuela
the same day I was supposedly charging merchandise in the United
Aside from the "requisite $50 " American Express held
Kelly responsible for, neither woman has had to pay for any of
the fraudulent debts incurred in their names. Yet they have had
to "pay" for the crimes committed against them in a
number of other ways.
Mary has spent untold hours on an "awful lot of paperwork,
not to mention the services of two notary publics.
"It's a huge hassle clearing your name," she sighed.
While Mary's credit report "looks pretty good right now,"
Kelly hasn't looked at hers in three years. "I've been too
busy proving I'm not the deadbeat here," she said, smiling.
"I'm sure it's okay, but then, I used to be sure that no
one could steal an account requiring a photo ID."
In fact, "when I asked Visa how such a thing was even possible,
I was told, 'normally, it isn't. At least not by individuals;
cases like yours are almost always the work of a theft ring.
These people play with numbers from discarded credit slips or
just make up anything and, once they get one that works, they
get other thieves, like the ones working at those three stores
of yours, to run it through for them, taking whatever cut they'd
Both women expect things will get worse before they get better.
"How can they not?" said Mary. "Too many people
who shouldn't have access to our Social Security numbers do.
(Credit issuers) should give us, or let us pick, individual PINs."
According to the Identity Theft Resource Center (www.idtheftcenter.org),
one of the nation's few, nonprofit victims' support agencies,
more than 700,000 citizens have, in the year 2001 alone, had
their identities stolen, with Social Security and drivers license
numbers the most frequently misappropriated "identifiers."
Beginning Jan. 1, 2003, consumers may, via written request and
a nominal fee, place a "security freeze" on their credit
reports. With a security freeze in place, the credit reporting
agency will be prohibited from releasing any identifying information,
including name, address, birthdate or Social Security number,
without the consumers' prior authorization (extended by their
providing a unique, pre-assigned PIN or password to the credit
But what can consumers do to protect themselves in the meantime?
Kelly, who, along with a friend, was robbed at gunpoint "by
some maniac who'd been hiding in the back of our van," and
has also been the victim of four other theft-related crimes in
the 25 years since, replies with a shrug. "People have been
accusing me of being 'too paranoid, too mistrustful' for years.
They tease me about how I lock my car doors the minute I get
into it; about how I use a P.O. box or business address on everything
from checks to vehicle registration; about my paper shredder,
even about having an unlisted telephone number. With this kind
of thief, though, there's not much more I could do to protect
myself short of buying everything with cash or becoming a hermit."
Mary replies by saying, "While Kelly has definitely been
more unlucky than I have, I'd agree that safeguarding your privacy
is, now more than ever, really important. Once your identity's
stolen, it can what seems like forever to make things right."
The Federal Trade Commission and the Identity Theft Resource
Center likewise emphasize taking precautionary measures, some
of which might strike non-victims as too precautionary. For example,
both agencies suggest that, in the event of a stolen and/or lost
wallet, regardless of how quickly it was, if ever, returned and/or
found, the owner should assume that everything in it might have
been used to steal his identity. This means canceling all cards
- including such "innocuous" ones as AAA, MediCal,
or video store cards - and reapplying for new accounts.
And if you still become a victim?
First and foremost, document everything. (California's credit
grantors are required by law to issue copies of any questionable
transactions; if applicable, request them.) Keep detailed records
of all telephone conversations, too, being sure to include the
full names and/or titles of everyone spoken to.
Also, file a police report and ask for a copy. "Occasionally,
the thief or thieves are caught and, with a police report on
file, it's much easier to recoup any losses or expenses associated
with the crime."
Finally, send all requested correspondence by certified mail,
and send it to "higher-ups," only.
Kelly notes that, "you can waste a lot of time pleading
your case to the wrong people. Anything I've had to have notarized
or sent certified mail, I usually send straight to the Attorney
General's office, consumer fraud division," of the credit-issuing
© 2002 The Ojai Valley
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