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Real People, Real Stories

Summer, California

In 2005, Summer received an e-mail from the University of California at Berkeley informing her that their database had been hacked and that her personal information had been stolen. The stolen information included Summer’s date of birth, her address, credit card information, and her social security number.

Soon, Summer discovered that a thief made fraudulent charges to one of her credit cards. She immediately closed her Wells Fargo credit card and checking accounts and opened new ones. The bank promptly removed the fraudulent charges from her credit card account.

Soon after the thief made the fraudulent charges, Summer put a fraud alert on her credit report through a credit bureau. The credit bureau told her that no new accounts would be opened without the bureau calling her to confirm them and would prevent her from receiving additional credit card offers. As far as Summer knows, the fraud alert worked. However, she still received credit card offers in the mail.

Summer called the University of California at Berkeley to see if the university offered assistance to victims. The person she spoke with offered no help, other than directing Summer to a for-profit credit monitoring company whose services she was already using.

In November 2006, more fraudulent charges appeared on an American Express card account which had been listed in UC Berkeley’s database. American Express removed the charges from her account.

On December 12, 2006 Summer received an e-mail about another security breach, this time at the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA). Summer had applied for graduate studies there but had never attended. UCLA was much more helpful than Berkeley, directing Summer to a hotline and a website created after the breach. There have been no fraudulent charges related to the UCLA breach.

“I can’t help but feel these institutions, which collect our personal information, should be more responsible for safeguarding it,” Summer told Consumers Union, “With the UC Berkeley incident, I couldn’t help but feel absolutely left alone to deal with their incompetence. I hope that universities can become more accountable for the mismanagement of personal information.”

Bette, Florida

Although Bette’s identity was stolen in 2003, she did not find out about the theft until she received a bill from a collection agency in April 2006. The bill was for an account at a cable company in a city where Bette had never lived. Bette and her husband went to the cable company’s offices and proved they did not live at the address listed on the account. The cable company promptly cancelled the account.

Soon, Bette learned that the thief had used her name and Social Security number to open a fraudulent account with Verizon. The thief had also managed to change her name on her caller I.D. from Bette’s name to her own. Fortunately, the change helped the local police track down the thief. She worked in a medical office where Bette was a patient. She had stolen Bette’s Social Security number from an office database.

Bette placed fraud alerts and a freeze on her consumer credit reports. A security freeze locks access to the credit score and reports. Without this information, a business will not issue new credit to a thief. Bette has been pleased with the freeze and fraud alerts. There have been no new fraudulent charges on her credit accounts.

Bette has spent many hours working to get the fraudulent information removed from her consumer credit reports. The theft substantially lowered her credit score. She applied for new cards and was denied credit. Bette is happy to report that now all of the fraudulent information has been removed from her credit report, and her credit score has risen to where it was before the identity theft occurred.

Bette believes that Social Security Numbers should not be used as identification numbers at medical offices and elsewhere. She also thinks that utilities should be listed on consumer credit reports. Then, she might have found out about the theft sooner.

“I cringe every time I have to write down my Social Security number,” Ricci told Consumers Union, “I can’t help worrying it will happen again.”

Naomi B, Florida

Miami resident Naomi B heard about the security breach at DSW a month before she was notified by the company that her personal information had been compromised. DSW urged Naomi B to check her credit reports to make sure there had been no fraudulent activity.

For Naomi B, ensuring the safety of her identity became a time-consuming task. After deciding to cancel all but two of her credit cards, Naomi B spent hours on the phone with credit card companies convincing them to cancel her accounts.

In the months that followed, Naomi B received notices that her information had also been involved in security breaches at Chase Mortgage and Capital One. Soon after hearing about these breaches, Naomi B placed a freeze on her credit report. A security freeze locks, or freezes access to consumer credit reports and credit score. Naomi B believes that the freeze prevented thieves from opening new credit accounts in her name.

Since the initial breach notifications, Naomi B not received communication or assistance from Chase, Capital One, or DSW. She looks forward to leaving the hassle the security breaches behind her.

“I’ve given up living in fear and have opted just to live,” Naomi B told Consumers Union.

Margaret, Illinois

Margaret received a call from an angry bill collector, demanding that she pay a balance on a credit card. Margaret pointed out that she had never opened the credit card account in question. The bill collector called Margaret a “liar” and told her that she was going to lose her home and go to jail. Margaret requested her credit report so that she could get information about the fraudulent account. She learned that a thief had obtained her social security number and credit score. The thief had opened new accounts in Margaret’s name and added his or her name to the accounts. The identity thief then charged several thousand dollars at an electronics store.

Margaret called the credit card companies and cancelled the illegitimate accounts in her name. She also notified the local police department, which took a report. The department also cooperated with the credit card issuers to help the companies determine it was a matter of fraud. However, Margaret has not been notified of any investigation or arrest in the case.

“The bill collectors and credit card companies treated me as though I was the criminal,” Margaret told the Consumers Union, “It’s frustrating that identity theft victims have to jump through so many hoops.”

The credit card fraud was not the fist time Margaret had dealt with identity theft. Several years earlier, she was pregnant and received a bill for a hysterectomy. It appeared that an identity thief was obtaining medical services in her name. Margaret continues to try to solve the problem with her health insurance.

Don, Texas

Don learned he was a victim of identity theft when he received a collection notice from Sprint Wireless. He was surprised to receive the notice from Sprint because he had never been a customer of the company. It appeared that someone had opened an account in his name using stolen information about him. Don filed a complaint with Sprint and sent the company copies of his driver’s license and social security card, hoping to prove his real identity.

Don also drove to several Sprint stores in the Dallas area, attempting to fix the mix-up. He showed them copies of his identification and explained he had never been a Sprint customer. One manager told Don that he believed him, but there was nothing else that he could do.

Don learned a similar fraudulent account in his name had been set up at TXU Energy, which led to the company turning off his electricity during the hottest days of summer. Don paid six-hundred dollars to reconnect. TXU Energy also charged him an additional $450 for a deposit. He hired a lawyer and sent letters to the credit bureaus explaining he had been a victim of identity theft.

Don says that he is most upset about the effect the identity theft has had on his credit report. His credit score dropped from 820 to 580, and he has had difficulty obtaining new credit. He is also seeking employment and notes that his poor credit has made it difficult to get a job.

Unfortunately, Don has not worked out the problem with Sprint. He has recently received another collection notice from Sprint. He worries that his credit will be further damaged.

“This has cost me a lot of blood, sweat, and tears,” Don told the Consumers Union, “It’s certainly not over yet.”

John, Virginia

John and his wife were both victims of identity theft. They first discovered something was wrong when the thief tried to open multiple credit cards with American Express in his wife’s name. They soon learned that their names, Social Security numbers, dates of birth, address, and telephone number had been stolen and used to apply for credit cards at several companies. They are still not sure how their identities were stolen.

Soon after the letter from American Express arrived, John requested a credit report and discovered that multiple inquiries were made at several credit issuers. He called all of the companies and prevented the inquiries from becoming accounts. However, two weeks later, the thief managed to open a credit card account and charge $1300 in merchandise. The company eventually grew suspicious and called John. Later, the thief received a $10,000 line of credit with Wells Fargo. John visited his local Wells Fargo branch, proved his identity, and cancelled the card. The thief also managed to change his address on John’s checking account by visiting a local branch of his bank.

John invested a significant amount of time and energy cleaning up his credit report and working to protect himself against further fraudulent activity. He placed a fraud alert on his credit report, which created additional work because one credit bureau was not notified of the fraud alert. However, he has been satisfied with the alert and believes it has played a large role in preventing further fraudulent activity. John also pays for a credit protection service.

The thief learned about the fraud alert John placed on his credit report. At one point, the thief called an issuer and pretended to be the victim! Fortunately, the fraud alert required the issuer to contact the real John. At one point, an issuer had the thief and John on the phone at the same time. Unsure of what else to do, the issuer hung up on the thief.

John also reported the crime to the local police department in Northern Virginia. Since the crimes took place in Maryland, the local police had no jurisdiction over the case. The Maryland police were not interested investigating either because there were no significant damages. Fortunately, a fraud detective in Northern Virginia took interest in John’s case. While off-duty, he posted “Wanted” posters in the neighborhood near the address the perpetrator had listed. John believes the officer also contributed to stopping the fraudulent activity.

John was relieved to learn that the identity theft did not affect his credit score. He attributes this to the many hours he spent speaking with credit issuers, in person and on the phone.

“The time I invested was like taking another part-time job,” John told Consumers Union, “I don’t know where I found the time.”

Martha, San Martin, CA

For Martha, a letter from the ExxonMobile Credit Center in June 2003 marked the beginning of three troublesome years dealing with the damage caused by identity theft. The ExxonMobile letter regarding her new card surprised Martha – she had never applied for one.

Martha immediately took action: canceling the fake account, alerting the authorities about the apparent identity theft and placing a 90-day fraud alert on her credit files. She believed that her trouble was over. But almost a year later, Martha discovered that she had a large overdue credit balance on a Fleet CC account which had been open for nearly a year.

“My nightmare started all over, once more having to contact all the credit bureaus, my financial institutions, filing amended police reports, contesting the charges with Fleet CC,” writes Martha, who adds that her credit history was damaged as a result of the fraudulent account.

As for how the identity theft occurred, Martha discovered that fellow employees at her workplace had also become victims. Her former employer believes that a former employee in the payroll department stole sensitive information from company files that was used to commit fraud. To date, the thief has not yet been caught. Martha hopes that all the trouble is now behind her, yet wonders, “Is the matter now settled? I surely hope so, but I still lie awake at night waiting for the next shoe to drop.”

Lee, Miami Beach, FL

Lee’s nightmare with identity theft had a severe impact on his finances, career and health. His encounter began in late August 2005 when his wallet containing personal information was stolen. The next day, the thief opened three fraudulent credit accounts in his name, and used them to purchase items and services from various brand name retailers. Lee acted quickly, canceling the credit cards and placing a 90-day fraud alert on his record that he believed would end the thief’s shopping spree.

But in December of that year, Lee learned that a car and auto insurance was purchased in his name. Later that same month, the identity thief transferred close to $5,000 from Lee’s newly created American Express account. Also, the thief had accessed Lee’s Bank of America checking account, resetting his online banking passwords and withdrawing $15,000 from his account.

To date, the crook has charged thousands of dollars on fraudulent accounts, despite the fact that Lee placed an extended fraud alert on his credit files. As a result, Lee’s credit score has suffered, just as he hopes to buy a new home and car. To top it all off, Lee is currently under criminal investigation by the IRS because there are two tax records filed under his social security number. Evidently, the crook filed a return using his private information.
Lee is still working on recovering the stolen money and dealing with new charges of fraudulent activity. “My story is still unfolding, as nearly everyday, there is a new phone call or another letter in the mailbox detailing the latest incident of fraud,” writes Lee.

Brian, Castle Rock, CO

When Brian applied for a mortgage in summer 2003, he had little idea that one of the employees at the firm handling his paperwork would steal his personal information and use it to steal his identity – literally. The thief obtained Brian’s employment history, credit reports and even personal family information off of his mortgage application and assumed Brian’s identity. The crook then moved to Orange County, California, where he obtained employment at another mortgage firm using Brian’s name and employment history. Soon thereafter, the thief purchased a home, a car, and paid for utilities using the stolen information.

Brian learned about the theft while applying for a car loan and discovering that his credit score had plummeted 200 points. Determined to uncover why he had such an abysmal rating and a whopping 82 credit inquires in a single year, Brian discovered that he had become a victim of identity theft, and the perpetrator was in Southern California living a life using his stolen information. Brian alerted the authorities and started his own investigation into the theft which led him to the Orange County mortgage firm where the crook worked. He called the firm, and was patched through to the thief, who answered using Brian’s full name.

“I almost had a heart attack,” recounts Brian, who was astounded to be speaking with the crook. Brian quickly hung up, but suspected that the thief recognized the voice on the other end of the line. Fortunately, the crook was tracked down and captured by police soon thereafter and is now serving a sentence for fraud and other charges.

Brian continues to clean up the mess left behind by the identity thief. Recently, he received a notice from the IRS regarding returns filed by the thief, and still battles to improve his damaged credit score. “It astounds me that he was living under my name,” says Brian, who is still weary about what other things the crook could have done using his stolen personal information. “I have no idea what I’m going to find in the mail the next day.”

Jaimee, Omaha, NE

After a former manager swiped Jaimee’s personal information and used it to open several credit card accounts, the Omaha resident not only tracked down the crook that stole her identity but also started a successful campaign to enact new privacy laws in Nebraska.

Jaimee’s ordeal with identity theft began in 2005 after a call from Discover credit card services tipped her off to a fraudulent application filed in her name. More calls and research by Jaimee unearthed more fraudulent applications filed with other credit card companies. She took action and stopped the applications from being processed, alerted the authorities and kept a close eye on her credit files.

The break in her case came after she obtained a copy of one of the credit card applications, and identified the address on it as the residence of a former co-worker. Jaimee notified the detective assigned to her case, and the crook, whom Jaimee later found out was a known meth-addict with a history of fraud and other associated charges, was arrested.

After the arrest, Jaimee decided to push Nebraska lawmakers for stronger identity theft protections so other consumers wouldn’t have to deal with the anguish and frustration she while felt cleaning up the mess associated with the crime. She started her own website (www.idtheftne.org) which focuses on educating consumers about identity theft and works with consumer advocates and groups to enact new stringent identity theft laws in Nebraska.

Recently, she helped pass a bill in the state legislature which would require companies to notify consumers if their private information has been compromised. Next, Jaimee is encouraging other concerned citizens to make Nebraska one of a handful of states that allow consumers to place security freezes on their credit files. “Maybe the lawmakers will pay more attention with 2,000 people saying ‘I want identity theft legislation,” Jaimee says.

Susana

Susana’s hard-earned money in her checking account was supposed to be spent on a family getaway to Disneyworld, a much needed vacation for the divorced mother of two living paycheck-to-paycheck. But an identity thief ruined her plans when they stole Susana’s debit card number and used her earnings to purchase computer software from companies in Canada and South Africa.

Upon discovering that she had become a victim of identity theft, Susana notified her bank and filed a police report with local authorities, hopeful that something could be done to recover the stolen money. Susana’s bank waived some of overdraft fees that the crooks had accumulated on her record – but not all – leaving her with the rest of the bill. The detective at the local police department simply took the Orlando resident’s report and filed it away with other area identity theft cases.

But Susana took action. She began contacting the out-of-country companies that had been patronized by the crook. The Canadian companies Susana called offered to refund most of her stolen money. The South African companies weren’t as sympathetic. In all, Susana says that she lost around $3,000 from the theft, stemming from late fees and money that wasn’t recovered from the fraudulent purchases. As a result, it sent her further into debt and wreaked havoc with her finances.

She suspects that whoever stole her identity obtained her information online, either by hacking into her computer, or through a “phishing” scam, where crooks send official looking emails from established companies asking for private financial information. Susana’s ordeal has made her more careful about giving up personal information. She has since changed banking institutions and now makes sure that her online transactions are only sent through secure websites.

Ida, Phoenix, AZ

On some days, the anxiety and frustration caused she experienced after her identity was stolen left Ida in tears. She made endless phone calls to law enforcement agencies, banks and credit institutions, only to learn that a majority of them – including her local police department – couldn’t do a thing to help bring the crook to justice and stop the dozens of fraudulent credit card applications filed in Ida’s name from being approved.

The 61-year old Phoenix resident suspects that the identity thief called her posing as a representative from her bank. Using the information off of a banking statement stolen from her mailbox, the thief then began to “verify” private information on the account with Ida, who believed that the conversation was a legitimate phone call.

The thief then used the information Ida gave to apply for multiple credit cards and attempted to withdraw money from Ida’s bank account. Ida discovered the fraudulent activity and immediately placed a fraud alert on her credit files, and filed a police report with local authorities.

Ida was soon mortified to learn that the crook was able to access her fraud alert account online and switch the phone number to direct all inquiries to the thief’s personal residence. As a result, the fraud alerts didn’t stop new credit cards, made out in Ida’s name and with her personal information, from being delivered to a residential address less than a mile from her Phoenix home. The thief reportedly told the credit card companies that Ida had moved to the new location, and all new cards should be sent there.

When Ida tried to report what she discovered to local police, she found out that authorities had filed her case away and told her to speak with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) for additional advice. The FTC told her it did not deal with individual cases.

“Nobody would help me, nobody,” recounts Ida. “I had [the crook’s] address and the police couldn’t go over there and do anything.”

Agitated from the inability for law enforcement to act, Ida marched down to the address that was listed on an eCommerce account application she obtained and was appalled to find mail with her name poking out of the mailbox at the home. The tenants that she confronted played dumb, claiming that whoever Ida was looking for no longer lived there.

Hopeful that she could find someone that could stop the relentless barrage of fraudulent cards and bring the neighborhood identity thief to justice, Ida went to the US Postal Inspection Service to report what she had learned. Instantly, the Postal Police stopped all pieces of mail with Ida’s name on it from being delivered to the address and along with local police, executed a search of the house where, according to Ida, they discovered bags of stolen mail and more victims of identity theft.

Ida says that federal authorities charged a woman living in the home with felony identity and credit theft. The alleged identity thief is awaiting a competency examination to determine if she is able to stand trial for her crimes.

For Ida, she wants the criminal to pay for the four months of misery she went through.
“This girl put me through hell for months,” says Ida. “It was so upsetting, it was like being raped every damn day, and you just couldn’t stop them.”

Ann, FL

Ann dreads receiving another piece of mail from a collection agency demanding payment for overdue credit card bills run up by a crook who stole her identity. It has happened before, and Ann suspects that it could happen again.

Everything began in 2004, when a fill-up at a local gas station turned into a thief’s opportunity to steal Ann’s debit card number. She suspects that she fell victim to a crime ring she read about in the local newspaper. The scam involved gas station attendants who jammed card readers at the pumps, forcing patrons to hand over their debit cards to the attendant, who allegedly records the numbers and sells them to outside parties.

The Florida resident said this happened to her, and shortly after, someone withdrew money from her checking account to make a purchase at an auto dealership across the country, in Washington State. Thankfully, Ann acted quickly. She caught the unauthorized transaction and immediately authorized the bank to investigate the incident. All of her money was replaced by the bank, which cancelled the debit card. Ann had to call and redirect automatic payment of several bills to a new account.

During different discussions with bank officials, Ann was told that it was cheaper for the bank to replace her money than to try finding the guilty person and prosecute. The investigation showed that she had used her card in Florida at a grocery store the same time the crook used it in Washington.

Ann thought that this would be her last encounter with the imposters.

But six months later, she received a demanding letter from a Texas collection agency asking Ann to pay up for an overdue cell phone bill from AT&T. Someone had used Ann’s private information to open an account with the company in California. Ann contested the charges, and after several unpleasant phone calls with the collection agent and the AT&T billing service, she managed to convince them that someone had fraudulently opened the accounts in her name. AT&T offered to settle with Ann for a third of the original amount, but after she objected, the phone company rightfully dropped all charges. However, they did not remove the bill from her credit report.

Ann faced the same problem earlier this year, when yet another collection agency sent her a bill, this time from a cable company in Washington State. The crooks had installed cable TV in their Pacific Northwest home, and once again, used Ann’s Social Security number to open a fraudulent account. Numerous phone calls and another round of paperwork over seven weeks finally resolved the matter, and left Ann weary that the latest incident would be the end of her troubles.

“I don’t know how else to put this, but that it feels like being violated,” said Ann who realizes how vulnerable she and everyone else is to identity theft. “Even more frightening is they still have most of my private information, including my full name and social security number, and they are still out there.”

Ginny, Odenton, MD

Ginny is sure that her bank’s surveillance cameras caught her having a nervous breakdown after she learned that all of the money in her checking account mysteriously disappeared. She is a full-time college student and working mom, who lives paycheck-to-paycheck, and every dollar she earns goes towards paying the bills and supporting her 14-year old son.

So when the bank teller at her local bank told Ginny than her money had been used to pay a pricey bill for a Cingular Wireless account, Ginny began to worry. She didn’t have a cell phone, and the Washington D.C. address on the cell phone bill wasn’t hers. She immediately suspected that she had become a victim of identity theft.

Not long after discovering the fraudulent Cingular Wireless account, Ginny learned that the thieves had opened accounts with Verizon Telephone Services, DirectTV, Sprint PCS, and Dell Computers. She also learned that the thieves tried to open credit cards using her name and personal information.

Once more, the imposters accessed Ginny’s newly created checking account and authorized the payment of an overdue fraudulent bill. With limited funds in the account, the thieves caused her rent check to bounce, resulting in expensive overdraft fees that Ginny wasn’t able to pay.

Furious about the chaos that the thieves had caused, Ginny placed a fraud alert on her credit files, filed a report with the Federal Trade Commission and sought help from her local Sheriffs Department, who told the Maryland resident to file a police report with authorities in Washington D.C. where the thieves lived.
With the address of the crooks in her hand, Ginny took a day off from work and spent her day driving to Metropolitan Police Headquarters in the District of Columbia where she filed a police report with the department’s check and fraud department.

Ginny expected the detectives would follow up on the case because of the information that she provided them; however, 60 days after filing the report, “The police did not do anything. [The detective] informed me that he believed my case had been closed.”

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