After a wonderful day roaming around Manchester, England, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, I open up my computer to a series of really bizarre emails. A stream of emails from Apple start appearing thanking me for my purchase. Since I’ve had nothing to do with Apple since selling my iPad before going on this trip, I know something is up. It looks like the kind of thing that you get when someone steals your identity. I check the contents of the email since it appears to be a legitimate message from Apple, and it gives me the details. I’ve apparently made 11 transactions in varying amounts for a combination of store credit and access to this strange Chinese app. As I’m the curious type, I copy paste the Mandarin characters into Google and translate the page. “Meet your people now in social media exchange. Chat your connections” it says. Under the description of the app are photos that show profiles of women that look a lot like what you would see on OkCupid or eHarmony. Imagine if you were in this situation. What would you do? Are you panicking? Is your credit going to be ruined for the rest of your life? Is someone going to do a freedom of information act on your name and think you were searching for some strange scandalous website? The good news is, this is not even close to a financial emergency. I’ve actually faced something like this before when I traveled in Mexico so I knew what to do. Just in case this ever happens to you, here’s how I handled it.
Contact the Company that Maintains the Account Hit by Fraudulent Activity
I immediately try to see if I can get ahold of Apple to let them know someone is fraudulently using my identity on their store. Unfortunately, the world’s most valuable company seems like it’s a lot more concerned about selling me a MacBook than making it easy to report identity theft on their website. Makes me think twice about using Apple Pay. I click all these links to try and report that the transaction isn’t me, and I have no luck. OK no worries, I move to option 2. I try to get a representative to chat over the internet, a service a lot of companies have now to avoid staffing expensive call centers. No one to be found unless I want to talk about a product I bought covered by Apple Support. Well nuts. Now I move on to option 3, sending the Internet version of snail mail aka email that will be answered within 48 business hours. Knowing that this guy could treat himself to every single one of Taylor Swift, Eminem, and Usher’s albums on my dime by that time, that’s not good enough.
I send a message to a friend to call in for me to tell them my account has been compromised and to please block it. While they won’t give her any info on the account, a standard practice in today’s world, I was pleasantly surprised they disabled account access so that I could call in later when I have phone signal. So step number 1 in any identity theft situation is to stop the offending account from causing any more damage immediately. Call the company, email them, and do everything in your power to let them know in all of their channels that there are financial transactions happening that are not from you. Since most governmental policies put the burden of fraud losses on companies not individuals, they will be extremely eager to hear as soon as possible. Also, you as an individual have an obligation to let them know as soon as you find out there is unauthorized activity on your account. If you wait, take a long weekend at the beach, or take your digital Sabbath, they might make an argument that you should be on the hook for not alerting them to the account being compromised.
Check Your Credit Report History For Free To See If Anything Sketchy Has Been Going On
The account used in the attack was a Discover Card, which I do not own. Naturally I was very curious if the guy was also opening credit cards in my name. I immediately thought that someone could have opened an account in my name with Discover as I’ve lived at eight different addresses in the last seven years. I’ve always received a shocking amount of credit card junk mail from Capital One and Discover. Because I have a decent credit rating and a history of paying an aged credit line with a smaller limit on time, these companies have models that tell them that a random consumer with my profile has an X% chance of getting in over their heads with a new card, but probably resolves the situation in a couple years. The credit card interest and fees that that they will earn during this period will be more than worth the trouble and all the dead trees from their junk mail if at least a decent chunk of people screw up this way. To take less risk, you need a large sample size to make sure the consumers are truly a random sample. Hence, they have no incentive to not blast as many addresses that they think I might live in as possible.
The good news is that there’s a website, annualcreditreport.com, mandated by Federal Government legislation that allows every citizen to receive a credit report from each of the 3 major credit bureaus for free every 12 months. In exchange for allowing private companies to store a massive amount of sensitive data about private citizens, the Feds decided that the three agencies should be required to furnish an annual report with everything they know about you annually upon request. Most people don’t know they have this right and fall for the not as free reports from questionably named companies like Free Credit Report dot com. The good news is you can rotate which agency you download the report from so you can get one every four months. The three Credit Bureaus are Experian, Transunion, and Equifax. Their credit reports are used in car loans, mortgages, credit card applications, business credit lines, and more. Anything with an interest rate will use their information to determine how good or how bad of a deal you get. That means their impression of you is really important.
So what was I looking for in the report? They list all your open credit lines. I went down to the credit card section and looked to see what they knew I had open. I should have four cards and THAT’S WHAT THEY SHOW ME HAVING! Whew that was a relief at least the credit report isn’t toast. If I had seen a Discover card among the list of cards I had open then I would need to call Discover and tell them someone opened a card in my name and try to get that fixed. I’m guessing in this case, someone wanted to use my name to get something they don’t want others to know they’re using. That would explain why they tried to get credits for a dating site.
How I Dealt With My Last Battle With Identity Theft
When I was studying abroad in Mexico in the summer of 2008, a guy named Juan decided he would take my debit card info and use it to buy $498 worth of goods at Walmart three times in a row. He did this because the automatic stops happen over $500 and he knew he could only do it around three times before the card company shut him down. He was quite professional in his knowledge of credit card company rules. Because I was a really broke freshman in 2008, that wiped out about 50% of my life savings. I was devastated. Hours upon hours of mowing lawns and sitting at basketball games running the time clock were for naught thanks to Juan.
I went with my Mexican friend to the local police station and reported the fraud. I got an official looking statement that said I had gone to the police and complained, and that simple form was all I needed when I went to ask for the money to be put back into my account. Since this last fraud was electronic in nature, I’m not going to need a document that I reported it to police to claim that it was fraudulent. However, once I get back to the US I might do so nonetheless. My lesson from the Mexico incident is to strike back fast by cancelling your card, contacting the bank or other institution affected so they can try and figure out how it happened, and check your credit report to make sure there are no adverse impacts on me from an act I never did. I will probably go back to annualcreditreport.com in a few months and get another free report from a different bureau just to double check everything looks as it should.
Look on the Bright Side of Life When Someone Steals Your Identity
There have been stories of identity theft that make the hair on the back of my neck stand up. People’s good names have been drug through the mud with all kinds of false lines of credit, phony investment accounts, and impersonations that make you wonder if you should buy some sort of insurance or have a lawyer on retainer to protect you. The truth is most people are fine with the built in protection they get from the big financial companies out there. Whenever possible, use a credit card for transactions instead of a debit card. It’s much easier telling a company you won’t pay them money you didn’t spend than begging them for money back that you no longer have.
If there’s a problem or a fraudulent transaction, 1) get proof that it happened. The Best is a police affidavit testifying to this, especially if the fraud was in person in a foreign country you’re visiting. 2) Cancel and lock down any affected accounts. You can always reopen them later. 3) Get a free credit report from that official site above. Don’t fall for the Free Credit Score . com and Free Credit Report jingles on TV. They’re just upselling and using advertising to get you to pay them to give you something that’s already free. Think of an Eskimo selling ice. That’s mostly what they’re doing. 4) Once you verify there’s nothing amiss with your credit report, think about going back and changing your passwords. I just read Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, a brilliant biography on Dr. Feynman of Caltech, one of the men who helped build the atomic bomb. He told some really chilling stories of how lax the security was at Los Alamos. They put all their work that gave away the secrets for how to build the atomic bomb in supposedly very secure filling cabinets with combination locks. He remarked how the millions of potential combinations were always overstated because of the propensity for people to use predictable non random numbers, like 2718 because its the first four digits of the number e. Or 3141 because its the first four digits of Pi, etc. One time he opened a ton of safes in the department and scared people half to death just to prove the point that the answer to your combination should always be random. In the same way, hackers and identity thefts are always trying to get at your passwords for online accounts. Its good to change them up from time to time.
Finally, losing 90% of your portfolio as well as your job in the Great Depression is a financial disaster. Buying more house than you could afford and being forced into a short sale because of the Great Recession is a financial disaster. Losing a couple hundred bucks temporarily because of an identity theft scam is no big deal in the grand scheme of things because you’ll get it back. The next time a guy buys $500 worth of Chinese online dating store credits, you’ll be prepared and ready to do battle with the forces of darkness.
Do you have any crazy or hair raising identity thefts that have occurred to you or friends/family? How did you recover and deal with it? Comment below!