Don’t Be a Victim
Imagine signing into your online banking or credit card account and noticing that your balance is drastically different from the day before. Only you haven’t made any purchases. Instead, someone else has fraudulently used your account number — and your identity — to make purchases of their own without your knowledge. That’s the scenario an estimated 40 million Target shoppers are facing, after their debit or credit card account information was stolen by thieves late last year.
And that’s just one of many scenarios of identity theft. In 2012, more than 12 million people were victims of identity theft, and those who stole their identities took more than $21 billion. New reports indicate as many as 110 million Target shoppers may have had some personal information stolen in last year's data breach; and the damage could easily climb into the billions. (The theft is the largest ever of retail data.) Ranging from fraudulent charges on a debit or credit card to new accounts being opened in the victims’ names, such crimes can be damaging to credit scores, the ability to apply for a mortgage and new bank accounts and, of course, the victim’s peace of mind. And that’s not even considering the lengthy, hassle-filled process required to clear the damages.
Here are five stories of women who were victims of identity fraud, and what they’ve learned from the experience.
Darci McConnell, 46, Detroit, Mich.
Her identity fraud experience: In 2005, someone created two fraudulent checks drawn on Darci McConnell’s account, and then went to a branch of her bank and cashed them for a total of $1,800. They were able to cash them because the checks looked just like those from her business account — including a replica of her signature. Eight years later, she was struck again: Someone made fraudulent charges totaling $2,400, using McConnell’s debit card number. Both times, McConnell caught the fraud quickly by monitoring her accounts online almost daily.
How she handled it: The first time, McConnell was forced to close her checking account and reopen it again, and the bank eventually refunded the stolen money (though not the hundreds she incurred in bounced-check penalties due to the lag between the time the theft occurred and when the funds were restored).
“The theft created a host of problems,” she says. For months, every time she deposited a check, the bank would place a hold on it, either because of the flag on her account or because the account was new. “I spoke with everyone in the branch to try to change that, and my previous time as a customer didn’t seem to matter,” she says. After several months, McConnell stopped going to her bank branch entirely.
When McConnell discovered the 2013 fraudulent charges, she contacted her bank, the Detroit Police Department and Ticketmaster, one of the merchants receiving the fraudulent charges. The bank and Ticketmaster refunded the charges, but she never heard back from the police department.
What she learned: In the past eight years, McConnell says her bank has become much more adept at rapidly handling similar issues, but she still tries to protect herself: “It has made me more cautious about the degree to which I try to order items from less familiar online sites and providing too much detail in online queries.” While she loves to shop online, McConnell says she is hesitant to buy from any new sites beyond those she’s already registered with, and she will “pull back” if the sites ask for date of birth or other personal details.
Betsy Watson, 28, Asheville, N.C.
Her identity fraud experience: Five different times in the past two years Betsy Watson has opened her online banking “to find a lot less in my account than should be there,” she says. When she noticed it happened a few times after using her debit card on popular sites such as eBay and PayPal, she switched to using her credit card on those sites. Then the same thing happened with her credit card. “At least it didn't tie up my cash and keep me from paying my bills,” she says. In total, about $3,000 has been fraudulently spent from her checking account.
How she handled it: Watson says her credit union has been very accommodating and will refund her money, “but that can take up to two months to happen,” she says.
In some cases, the fraud was a result of a group of card numbers from her credit union being compromised, and the credit union refunded the money very quickly. The other times, her card number was compromised from sites where she did online shopping, she says. This year, Watson has had to cancel both her credit and debit cards and reset her PIN a few times. “They usually resend me a card within two weeks, but that is still two weeks that I don't have my debit or credit card, and it's inconvenient,” she says.
Visa Card Services has been helpful, sometimes catching fraudulent charges before Watson does. “They call and ask me to confirm unusual purchases,” she says. “If I haven't made the purchase, they freeze my card and issue me a new one.”
But when she has reported fraudulent charges to PayPal, “I get a standard letter,” Watson says.
What she learned: After all the hassles of dealing with fraudulent charges, Watson has learned to make a list of which bills are automatically drafted from each card, “so I can call everyone to keep my bills paid on time,” she says.
She has also cancelled all store cards and refuses to open more. “So many times I think we get that store card, forget it's there, and then it's another account to worry about,” she says. “I feel like having one credit card I watch closely is the best idea. I only use a credit card for online shopping and I never opt for the ‘remember my card number’ option.”
Watson believes fraudsters target trusted sites, and increasing numbers of people are learning how to steal credit card information. “Shopping online is really starting to make me nervous, but I’m trying to get smarter about it,” Watson says. “I’ve pretty much stopped trusting PayPal and eBay. I'll still use Etsy, but I'm very careful where I will use my card online.”
Shameca Tankerson, 38, Riverside, Calif.
Her identity fraud experience: Shameca Tankerson was a victim of identity fraud at the hands of a family member rather than a stranger. Her relative opened bank accounts in her name and purchased a number of items that eventually damaged her credit score and her ability to open new accounts.
Tankerson found out about the fraud at the bank: She was “shocked” when the customer service representative told her she was listed in ChexSystems, a check verification program, and they refused to open an account for her, she says. The accounts opened by her relative were turned over to a collections agency, which Tankerson was eventually able to remove from her credit.
How she handled it: Because a family member committed the fraud, Tankerson chose not to file charges, but “it was a long, hard road to recovery,” she says. She wrote to credit agencies and creditors to dispute the charges and collection accounts. “It took about seven months of diligent disputing and fighting to clear most of the damage,” Tankerson says.
But some of the damages were irreparable, such as the fraudulent bank account. Because so much time had passed between the opening of the account and Tankerson’s discovery of it, the bank’s records of the account had been destroyed “and there was nothing they could do about it,” Tankerson says. “So I just had to wait it out.” Because the accounts were opened under her name, but not using her funds, she didn’t lose any money, but it was three years before she was able to open a new account again.
What she learned: “Identity theft can happen to anyone, and it's not always the crooks and thieves of the world that will take your identity,” Tankerson says. To avoid further damage, she enrolled in a credit monitoring service so that she can see the activity on her report in real time.
Jennie Dallery, Los Angeles, Calif.
Her identity fraud experience: While visiting a gym as a guest, Jennie Dallery left her driver’s license at the front desk as collateral for a padlock. When she left the gym, she returned the lock but forgot to ask for the license, and the gym employee neglected to provide it.
Soon after, Dallery left the country for a month, then returned to a mailbox “full of letters from various businesses ranging from Walgreen’s to Ralph’s, stating that they had received counterfeit checks in my name,” she says. “Someone, most likely a gym employee, stole my ID card, printed counterfeit checks and used them, and I was totally unaware as I was away.”
How she handled it: When she discovered the fraud, Dallery contacted the Social Security Administration Fraud Alert, and submitted a signed statement saying she was the victim of fraud. She also contacted all three credit reporting agencies and filed a police report with a detective from the Los Angeles Police Department. She then had to write a letter to each business, explaining the fraud along with copies of her signed statements to Social Security and the police. She was able to get the mess resolved after about a month. Since the checks were counterfeit, she did not lose any money.
What she learned: Dallery learned to be less trusting and more protective of her private information. She never leaves her driver’s license or passport as collateral, she has opted out of white pages and all other directory listings and she never throws away sensitive documents such as credit card approval letters, banking information or receipts.
Harrine Freeman, 40, Bethesda, Md.
Her identity fraud experience: Someone broke the window in Harrine Freeman’s car and stole her purse while she was inside a gas station during the middle of the day. Using the checks, debit card and driver’s license that were in her purse, the thief stole $3,000 out of Freeman’s checking account.
How she handled it: Freeman immediately notified her bank of the theft and tried to close her account, but was told that a pending transaction had to clear first. Although a bank employee put a restriction on the account to ensure that no transactions would occur except those already pending, the thief was able to cash checks. Those checks resulted in overdraft fees, a bounced check for Freeman’s mortgage and other problems. After many phone calls and frustrating hassles, Freeman finally got a refund from her bank a month later — but only after calling the bank president’s office.
What she learned: Freeman changed her habits after the theft. She now pays with cash when shopping at stores and eating out. She doesn’t use online banking, doesn’t purchase from catalogs and only shops online on two or three trusted websites. Whenever she goes out of town, she notifies her bank and provides them with a list of places she will be visiting.