Stealing Your Life; The Ultimate Identity Theft Prevention Plan
By Frank W. Abagnale
A sobering reality of modern-day life is that many identity theft victims have no idea that they've been victimized. Days, weeks, months, years, and even decades can go by while someone else spends money in your name without you knowing it. Often the signs are right there in front of you, but you don't recognize them for what they are. Being rejected for a mortgage certainly will get anyone's attention, but you'd be surprised by how many people assume that even this unanticipated jolt is somehow their fault, precipitated by a black mark on their record from years ago that they have forgotten about, or the result of their own miscalculation about their qualifications. They don't see it for what it actually is: the result of a criminal act.
The sooner you realize that you've been victimized, the sooner you can put a stop to the attack, and the better your chances are that the culprit might even be caught. Certain distinctive events are tipoffs, a sort of identity theft DNA that you should be alert to. My long familiarity with this crime has led me to conclude that there are four key events that suggest that someone has become a victim of identity theft.
Most people don't have any idea what the status of their credit is until the worst moment to find out: when they really need it. You apply for a loan, a mortgage, a job, or something else that typically requires a credit check. As far as you know, your credit is good, yet you're turned down. This, of course, is what happened to the hapless home-buyer. Denial of credit is the first sign of identity theft.
Another form of denial is a notification of a rate increase on your car insurance or home insurance, or word that your insurance is being canceled, when nothing adverse has changed in your life that would dictate that happening. There's always a reason, and it might well be identity theft.
When people are rejected for a mortgage or car loan, as I pointed out, they often do no real due diligence. They're humiliated and quickly presume it's their fault. Say you're turned down for a job. The company won't tell you the reason. You figure your resume was weaker than you thought, or maybe you fumbled the interview or wore the wrong clothes. Hut actually a crook may well have wrecked your credit report. It happens all the time. Don't conclude it was just one more of life's bad blows and head to the nearest bar. If you're turned down for a job, forget the alcohol and the resume-writing coach: get a copy of your credit report and look for the footprints of an identity thief.
Many times the sign that you've been victimized comes in a much subtler fashion. You get denied for a store credit card-something you didn't really need anyway, and so you paid the incident no mind. Or you're refused an expansion of a personal line of credit. Don't presume you've simply hit your credit limit. A nineteen-year-old girl was repeatedly rejected for student loans and federal education grants during her four years of college. She shrugged it off, deciding she didn't satisfy the parameters. That wasn't the reason. An identity thief had applied for and received thirty-two credit cards under her name over five years and had racked up $150,001) in debt. So find out if the problem was caused by you or by someone who said they were you.
If you ask for a raise and get turned down, you might think it's because your boss is stingy or maybe your work performance isn't as good as you feel it is. But maybe your boss ran a credit check and discovered overdrawn accounts that weren't in fact yours. Assuming that you were a spendthrift, he may have decided not to give you more money to fritter away on indulgences.
The less established your credit is, the sooner this alarm will get tripped. II you're a new college graduate just beginning your career, you don't have much credit to begin with, so any drain created by an identity thief will quickly result in a denial. An application for cell phone service could do it.
Sometimes you're lucky and the denial is so absurd that something is obviously amiss. A fifteen-year-old in Georgia, eager to get his learner's permit and start driving, was turned down because state records indicated that he already had been issued a license. The records also showed that he was $5,000 in arrears on his child support payments. Not even in college, he was already in the hole.
But if you're making a decent income and have long established good credit patterns, an identity thief could lx» spending money right alongside you for years, through numerous successful applications for additional credit, before you get surprised with a denial. That's why big-eyed identity thieves are picky and go after well-heeled victims, liven better is someone with solid credit who rarely applies for more. A favorite choice is an elderly person. Say she's in the nursing home with dementia, no longer sure who she is. She's never going to be looking for new credit.
Denial of credit is the most jarring way you're going to be tipped off that a thief has insinuated himself into your identity. But there are other ways as well.
2. Ripped Off
Out of the blue and much to her distress, a Virginia woman found out that more than $200,000 in loans had been taken out in her name in New Jersey. Huh? She had visited that state exactly once in her life. How did it happen? A man in Virginia who worked at a mortgage company where she had once taken out a loan managed to get hold of her Social Security number and used it to secure two car loans, two personal loans, and a mortgage. The woman had no idea any of this mischief had happened until he began missing the payments and she was asked to make them.
That experience was eye-opening all right. But how about the unfortunate California woman who was notified by the IRS that she owed roughly $1 million in back taxes? She had good reason to be in shock about this staggering hill, since she hadn't even worked in five years, having taken up motherhood after giving birth to a child. For years a number of illegal immigrants had been working under her Social Security number while declining to bother with that nasty business known as tax-paying.
It's a pretty good tip-off that something is wrong when your credit card, bank, or other financial statement contains charges that you never made. An even more obvious tip-off is a statement for a credit card or loan, or from the tax authorities, that you didn't know you had.
On a credit card bill, you should immediately inquire about any suspicious charge, even one for $2.50. It could be the beginning of a raging nightmare. And don't be easily put off. Suppose something looks suspicious, you call the credit card company-I've done it-and they don't know what that charge is. They give you the phone number of the vendor in question. You call it and get one of those automated menus-press this for that, press that for this-and you never reach a live person. Meanwhile it's a toll charge, so you hang up and accomplish nothing. Don't let it go-dispute it.
If a merchant calls to verify a charge that you never made, don't just say that's wrong and assume the merchant will delete it. He might delete it without doing anything beyond that. Assume the worst-that it's part of a larger identity theft against you.
If you see something fishy on a bank or brokerage statement, go to the bank or broker and find out if it's a mistake or something sinister.
Security officials at large department stores tell me that the biggest problem they face isn't shoplifting or fraudulent checks-it's these instant store credit cards. Suppose you're shopping, and a salesperson asks. "Do you have one of our cards? It'll just take thirty seconds to get one." She asks for your name, where you work, your date of birth, and your Social Security number, then she checks your credit, it's great, and presto, you've got a temporary card with a $2,000 limit. If you're an identity thief, you didn't give your name, you gave someone else's name. In twenty minutes you buy $2,000 worth of merchandise with it, and thirty days later the bill goes to somebody who had never set foot in the store.
Don't conclude its a mix-up-follow up.