Today I reread an article that appeared in the AARP magazine about a year ago. I was preparing for a presentation I’m about to give and wanted to use the information as an example. It impacted me today with the same dismay that it did when I first read it. It always amazes me how effortless it is for some people to destroy another person’s life for their own selfishness. This is Helen’s story, but how easily it could be one of ours.
Helen Anderson is an aunt. And according to her niece, Samantha, she’s a really nice person, which is why when Samantha house sat for Helen, it didn’t seem to be a big deal to invite a friend to stay with her for a few days. What Samantha didn’t know at the time was that her friend Alice was in business. That business was in stealing identities and she just got lucky. Spending a few days in the home of a retired nurse gave her access to countless receipts, unopened mail and a long history of great credit.
Alice was so good she could walk into retailers and charge items on Helen’s accounts without even having possession of the card. She would pay down the balances on Helen’s accounts by writing bad checks from other victim’s checking accounts. Alice knew it would take about a month for the bank to catch on and by then, she would have moved on. When Alice found a loophole in the Credit Union Helen belonged to, she emptied the account. She used Helen’s equity in her home to secure a loan she had no intention of paying back.
Eventually Helen discovered the empty Credit Union account and she filed a fraud affidavit. Fortunately her funds were restored by her Credit Union. It’s typical that financial institutions bear the burden of restoring funds in these cases. A few days later, Wells Fargo called asking if she had just made $5,000 in charges on a credit card she rarely used. The obvious answer for Helen was, “No!”
Alice carried on as Helen for seven months. She found Helen’s mother’s date of birth online and was able to reactivate accounts and change the security questions for her own use, locking Helen out. She registered for a credit-monitoring service and again gave her own answers to the required questions. “Basically, the service designed to protect Helen is what gave me access to everything in her life,” Alice admitted after she was eventually caught.
Alice only served a little more than a year in jail. Helen, on the other hand, is still mired in the mess that Alice created during that seven months. Although Helen’s stolen funds have been restored, the tragedy for her is in the psychological damage that was inflicted and the sense of despair she felt that it would never end. She feels vulnerable and compromised, never to be whole again. She’s mired in a mountain of paperwork trying to get her records corrected and at times she has to fight to prove she is who she says she is. She is also realistic in thinking this could happen again, “All of my information is out there.”
This is one story in over 16 million a year in the United States. There are steps you can take, but the world in which we now live prevents us from being truly safe from identity theft. Here are at least five must do’s. How many of them do you practice?
1. Never leave personal information in your car
2. Shred all documents that contain personal information
3. Use pass codes on your devices: Computer, laptop, smartphone, and tablet
4. Create strong passwords for your accounts and change them routinely
5. Check your bank and credit card accounts regularly
It’s not a matter of “if,” it’s a matter of “when.”
Lori Lawson is a LegalShield Senior Director and is an ID Shield specialist. Her company, New Line Associates is located at 2111 El Camino Real here in Oceanside. Visit their website at newlineassociates.com