By Diane Ako
As the economy sours, identity theft has risen. Unfortunately, about half the people I know have been victimized in some way in recent history. Now, I've become the unfortunate victim of ID theft.
The upswing: it's made me a little smarter about how to operate in today's world. I revamped and rethought outmoded methods of mine; habits I've accrued over the years, which are no longer appropriate. I'll share the story in hopes you can learn from my misfortune.
Monthly, I check my bank statements. I was excellent at this before I had a child, but I've gotten a bit sloppy. I still do it, but sometimes I do it every other month. In this case, in early February, I had sat down to look at my January and December statements, and noticed a very out of sequence check. I was getting debited $27 a month for the past two months.
I looked back at the November statement to see how far it goes. Appears it started in November. When I had checked that statement, probably in December, I was rushing through the holidays, and was busy. I had circled and written a question mark near an unaccounted for $27 fee in November too. I assumed Claus wrote a check using our old starter checks, and didn't question such a tiny amount.
But now that I see it took on a monthly pattern, I was curious. I squinted my eyes to read the teensy microfilm copy on the back of my statement, something I could have done back in December, but was busy and harried. I saw that it was a remotely created check to someone in my name, but whose information totally didn't match mine. I assumed it was a mistaken identity, and didn't worry.
The next day, I went to the bank to file a check dispute. As the staff started looking into it, they then got worried. Apparently, this was a remotely created check (no signature needed) to a debt counseling agency in the mainland. So every month, this collection agency was taking $27 from my account to cover a minimum payment for someone else's account. This person - a total stranger to me- had a name nowhere similar to mine, and was a former customer at my bank, whose contact information now lead to a dead end.
Theoretically, and most likely, the culprit got hold of my name and account number, and to get this agency off her back, told them to take the bills out of my account. The agency only cares that they get their money, so they went ahead with it. It's called a remotely created check. My signature or approval was not needed. Had I not checked my statement, this could go on indefinitely. All she needed was my name and account number. Scary!
I had to do two things: file a dispute with the debt agency in hopes they would give me my money back, and file a police report with the Honolulu Police, so that if the debt agency won't give me my money back, my bank will. It was conditional; I had to agree to prosecute the thief and testify in court, if she is caught, for the bank to agree to give me the money back.
The officer, and the bank employees who helped me, say they've noticed a severe spike in this type of fraud in the past six months. The bank staffers said they have the procedure memorized, because they deal with ID theft so often now. Sad.
That took an hour. Then, I had to sit around for another hour to close my old accounts and reopen new ones. I didn't expect this to happen, so it's a good thing I happen to have babysitter coverage for the two hours I was at the bank.
This happened yesterday. Today, I have to set aside a couple hours to call all the other companies (utilities, phone, etc) that I have on auto-pay, and re-set those accounts up with a new bank account number. Then, put a fraud alert out with the credit agencies. What a royal pain.
This criminal is an idiot; all she did was buy herself a few months' worth of time from being hassled by the collection agency. I know, however, people messed up on drugs really don't think that far ahead, so I'm sure she'll worry about it when she gets to the next bump in her road.
What's sad is that there are so many predators out there trying to scam good people. I never understand human nature- all the time people are putting into devious endeavors could go towards something productive. Why are people such louts? It left me slightly sleepless that night, feeling a bit of anxiety. I'm lucky this was a small and recoverable episode, but it made me feel vulnerable. If it can happen, what stops it from happening in a very devastating way?
I have no idea how the thief got my information, but I am going to guard it more closely in the future. I changed the name on my checks to just initials, and when indicating in the Memo line what account it's for, I now just write "for account ending -1234" and only list the last digits.
Lastly, I used to endorse the checks and add "for deposit only to account #123-4567-890" but I learned that's an old-school practice that, for at least five years, bank tellers have been discouraging. I'm not sure how I picked that up, but at some point I'm sure I was told it was a good idea. She said if you really want to, write "deposit to account of payee" on the back instead. But you really don't need to unless you have a third party depositing your checks for you.
I had to ask specifically if this was a bad practice; I asked why no teller has actually taken the initiative to tell me to stop doing it, and the answer was that "We can't tell you what to do." Well, I'm not beholden to bank staff rules, so I'm going to tell my readers to stop doing that! Checks pass through many hands, and who knows who saw my information? Given the fact that this account was 28 years old, that number's been circulating in the community for a long, long time.
What brings me to my next point: I'm not at all sentimental about getting a new checking and savings account, but it is, in a small way, a little bit of a bummer that I had to let go of an account that I've had for decades. I had those numbers memorized. When I rattled off the numbers at lightning speed, the staffer helping me actually stopped and said, "Wow!"
So in recap:
1) Make sure you check your statements every month and that all the charges are ones you recognize. I still know people who don't do this. Do it!
2) Check your credit history regularly. I used to and then I just got caught up with work and kid. This is my kick in the pants to get back to my old habit of quarterly checks.
3) Don't write anything on the backs of the checks you endorse.
4) Guard your account numbers carefully!
Lastly, and this is just something I'm doing- I'm going to write to my local lawmaker to see what can be done about tightening up regulations on remotely created checks. I think it's really sloppy that some jerk can find out my information and call it in to scam a free ride off me, without any accountability from either corporation taking, or giving, my money.
Does anyone have a story to share? Or any suggestions or additions to my advice list? Because I certainly am not the expert on this, and I think we as a community (even if it's just a blogosphere community) can help each other out with an exchange of tips and ideas.
Also reach me via DianeAko.com