Tuesday, December 14, 2010

A Personal Tale of Identity Theft

Credit: Wikipedia Commons
by Cathy Scott

Two days before Thanksgiving, I was the victim of a short-lived identity theft.

I’d gone to the supermarket that evening and spent $75, including dinner-to-go from the salad bar. When I arrived at the grocery, I grabbed my wallet, not my purse, from my car and went inside to shop.

When I walked out of the store after shopping, I had my wallet and keys in one hand and two paper shopping bags in the other. When I reached my car, I put the bags down to press the unlock button on my keyless door opener. Then I picked up the bags and put them in the car. A large SUV was parked next to my car and I had to squeeze in between the two to slip into the passenger seat, which distracted me. I got in, put on my seat belt and headed home.

A few minutes later, once in my driveway, I realized I did not know where my wallet was. I searched the grocery bags, under the car seats, next to them, in the center console, on the floor, in the back. No sign of the wallet. I got back into my car and hurried back to the store. Not more than 15 minutes had elapsed. I parked near where I had just been and checked the blacktop parking lot as I walked toward the store.

The checkout clerk didn’t have my wallet, and no one had turned it in at the service counter. “It must be in my car somewhere, “ I told a store clerk.

Inside my wallet was an ATM/Visa credit card, my driver’s license, my athletic club card, a Barnes and Noble membership card, and some business cards from other people. No money was in the wallet except for coins. I don’t typically keep photos in my wallet.

When I finally walked into my house, two messages had already been left on my phone from the bank. “This is the fraud unit at Wells Fargo Bank,” the message began. “Please call us immediately to verify some recent activity on your ATM card.”

Oh, no, I said to myself. Someone has my wallet.

I called the bank's fraud unit (open 24 hours) and talked to an employee. She asked, “Did you authorize anyone to use your card?”

“No,” I answered.

“Did you lose your card?”

“Yes,” I said. “About 40 minutes ago.”

“Someone just tried to make another purchase a few minutes ago. We flagged it,” she said.

Whoever picked up my wallet in the parking lot had a decision to make. “Should I walk the wallet into the store? Or should I keep it?”

The person kept it. And then she got very busy. (I say “she” because the person used my Nevada driver’s license as identification for her ensuing shopping spree.)

She made her first stop down the street at Grumpy’s, a neighborhood gas station, charging $1 on my card. The bank said it looked like a test purchase, to see if she could get away with using my ID. An internal flag went up at the bank, because it was an even dollar--a dead give-away for a fraud purchase to see if the person could pull it off.

To me, it appears the thief was not alone, and here’s why. The second stop on the spending spree, after having success at Grumpy’s, was a Taco Bell drive-thru about two miles away. The total was $23.68. But that apparently was not enough quick food for the thief. She drove back to a strip mall across the street from the supermarket and spent another $23-and-change on fast food.

Next up was a Payless Shoes in the same parking lot. Grand total? $88.

Then, a few doors away from Payless, she went into Target and attempted to purchase $200 worth of electronics. By then, my bank was onto her, flagged the account, and would not pay. But being declined didn’t stop the thief. She proceeded from the electronics department at Target to one of the main checkout registers for another purchase (I don’t know what the price was). She was turned away for that too.

Not to be dissuaded, she walked a few doors up from Target and went into Bed, Bath & Beyond for yet another attempt to buy merchandise with my plastic. At the checkout, the clerk rang up a $5 item. “Declined,” she was told.

The bank employee assured me that I was not responsible for the purchases and asked if I wanted to prosecute. "Absolutely," I said.

The snafu for the thief in this quick-and-dirty shopping trip is that drive-thru restaurants have surveillance cameras that take clear photos of cars--and license plates--as does Grumpy’s, because it’s a gas station with cameras pointed smack-dab at the parking lot and gas pumps. And at each and every place the thief went to, she not only committed fraud by using my bank card, but she presented my driver’s license as an ID. That’s a felonious federal offense of identity theft.

By my count, she committed four counts of theft, three counts of attempted theft (state offenses), and seven counts of felony identity theft. The bank has its own investigators and, by the next morning, had opened a case.

As for me, I had my work cut out for me. I got up early the next morning--Thanksgiving eve--which wasn't how I had planned that morning; I'd intended to spend it and most of the afternoon, writing. Instead, my first stop of the day was the Nevada Department of Motor Vehicles.

The banker had told me the night before that I could get a temporary ATM card but that I could not do that without proof of a driver's license. So, I drove to the DMV, where I stood in two lines before I was able to present proof of my identity with an ancient photo ID from a newspaper I’d once worked for, along with my phone bill. Because driver’s licenses are now embedded with a logo, the license was mailed and not immediately available.

With a paper driver’s license in hand and the dated press pass, I drove to the bank to get a temporary ATM card. I answered their security questions so they could access my account. But without a name and account number stamped on it, the card they gave me is only useful in ATM machines, not for debit or credit at stores. It was a step back in time to not-so-long-ago banking.

My third stop was Office Max to pick up a fraud complaint form that was faxed there by my bank. I filled it out and faxed it back. I went to the gym later in the day to work out and have my photo taken for a new gym membership card. I needed something with a current photo on it, and that did the trick.

I blame myself for being in a hurry and careless with my wallet, but I mostly blame the thief who took advantage instead of handing over my wallet to a supermarket employee. Luckily, my wallet didn’t have my Social Security card inside, and I don’t include my Social Security number on my driver’s license, so the thief didn't have access to it. And I also don’t typically keep my checkbook in my wallet, so I didn't have to close out my checking account and open a new one, thank goodness.

My fourth stop was at a department store. With gym and ATM cards, cash and a temporary paper driver's license, I needed something to put them in, so I bought a new wallet.

More than anything, this was a major hassle, an expense to my bank, nominal expense to me but a major inconvenience. Luckily, I wasn’t flying out of town for Thanksgiving, because I wouldn’t have been able to board a plane without identification.

This should be a slam-dunk case for Las Vegas police, given the cameras at the two fast-food restaurants and surveillance at the stores, snapping the woman's photo each time she presented my driver's license to a store clerk. I know there are bigger fish to fry, but it appears, relatively speaking, to be an uncomplicated case to solve, given the strong possibility that at least one of the fast-food cameras camptured the license plate. Plus, each transaction made wth my card was time stamped, as are surveillance photos. It's a matter of matching them up.

That afternoon, I went to Payless Shoes, and the clerk there said the thief showed my driver's license to make the $88 credit purchase. And it was the bank employee who told me, because the card was used for credit (my pin number wasn't in my wallet and the person did not use it as an ATM card), that it's identity theft.

It's been just a few days, but I'm already ultra sensitive about my wallet, as well as my Blackberry, hardly letting them out of my sight when I'm out and about. I don't want it to happen again.

My advice to holiday shoppers is, while you're hitting the stores buying gifts, hang on to your wallets! You never know who's nearby, ready and willing to steal your identity.

Reprinted with permission from Women in Crime Ink.

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