I never had any fear of the phone ringing before. That all changed a couple of weeks ago, when I was called by a rather rude man from a collection agency. He chastized me for not dealing with my delinquent Verizon account. There was only one, albeit major problem: I have never HAD a Verizon account.
That’s right, I joined the ranks of millions of Americans who have – through no fault of their own – become victims of identity theft.
Ironically, for years my father had been sending me all sorts of magazine articles and other printed literature on “avoiding identity theft,” “protecting yourself against identity theft,” “what to do if your identity is stolen,” and the like. And I always smiled, and nodded, and stuck them into a file, usually without having read any of them. Dad tended to be overly cautious (or zealous) about a lot of things in life, and as a result I just developed the habit of tuning him out. Great.
My first reaction was that my husband was going to kill me. My second thought was that while I really missed my dad, I was glad he wasn’t around to see this happening because he would have lost it completely. Then the panic attack set in, and I had to take to my bed like any good Victorian woman.
But after a while, I pulled myself together and got on the phone to Verizon. Turns out that this sort of problem is so prevalent, Verizon actually has a fairly well-organized fraud department.
The nice lady at Verizon, who clearly must have dealt with lots of panicky folks like me over the years, guided me through the process. First, I had to give her my social security number to verify that it matched what was in their system. (It did – they had my ENTIRE number.) Then she had to determine what was my real address, because my fraudulent account had a billing address of Augusta, Georgia. Finally, she advised me to put a “fraud alert” on my credit accounts so that for the next 90 days, anyone attempting to create a new account would have to be verified by ME. A good thing that occurred: as part of the fraud investigation, Verizon called off the collection agencies. No more fear of phone calls here.
Next step: contacting the three credit reporting agencies. These folks have mastered the art of having automated systems that have so many options, it’s impossible to talk to a human being. So after reading all three of their web sites carefully and hoping for the best, I created a fraud alert at TransUnion via their automated phone system, and TransUnion specified that it would notify Equifax and Experian so that I would not have to. (Being paranoid, I actually attempted to set them up at Experian and Equifax but their systems wouldn’t let me do so, presumably because they had already been notified by TransUnion.)
A few days later, a copy of my credit report showed up from TransUnion. Lo and behold, there was the fraudulent Verizon account. Apparently the account was set up last July and cancelled this past January. It took until March for the collection agencies to be notified.
Verizon had claimed it would take 72 business hours for me to hear back from them about the results of their fraud investigation. I wondered if formally disputing the account would get me anywhere, so I again attempted to traverse the maze known as the automated phone systems at the three reporting agencies. Somehow, I managed to find a human being at Experian, who said that in order for me to dispute an account, I’d have to file a police report with my local police department. Oh Joy.
The officer down at the Sunnyvale police station was not only really nice but gave me some interesting insights into the problem. Basically to create a police report, I just had to fill out a form and let it process through their system for a few days. The officer told me that they do this to help out victims, but in reality there was little more they could do. My case in particular they couldn’t do anything else about because it involved two different states (CA and GA). I asked him whose jurisdiction that WOULD be, and he replied, “the FBI.” However, he advised me to not even bother trying to contact them because my case only involved $1700 of charges, and the FBI wasn’t going to touch anything under $500K. My case was too small to be worthy of their time. I asked him how this sort of thing happens, and he said that in his experience it happened most often through security breaches at medical offices and insurance companies. As if I needed something else to make me feel all warm and fuzzy toward insurance companies…
A few days later I got my free copy of the police report, but ironically it had stamped all over it “not for copy purposes.” It then occurred to me that if I was going to send this to the reporting agencies, I was going to have to PAY for additional copies to do so. I decided to wait and see what happened via Verizon.
After another week or so, I called Verizon back to check on the status. Apparently as of 2 days after I initially called them, the Verizon folks closed out my fraudulent account and absolved me of all financial responsibility. They were supposed to notify me via email, but apparently that email went into the ether. (So I had them send another one.)
Then I figured I should check to see if the credit reporting agencies still listed the account on my report. I seemed to have the best luck finding a human being at TransUnion, so I contacted them again. Lo and behold, the account was removed from my credit report. I could not verify this at Equifax or Experian, because I continued having trouble contacting a human being. So I’ll have to pay to get copies of my reports just to verify this information.
I dodged a HUGE bullet.
This could have been SO much worse. If nothing else, I now have a vague notion of how the system works. Unfortunately I will have to be on guard forever; someone out there DOES have my entire social security number. I figure I’ll go ahead and pay to get copies of my credit reports now to ensure that all is well, and make it a habit to check them each year. It doesn’t matter how diligent you are about keeping your identity information safe, powers outside your control can render you completely vulnerable.
I’m still going to buy a shredder, regardless. A little paranoia this way never hurt anyone.