My life changed in an instant on a sunny Sunday afternoon in our beloved San Francisco. It was an ignorant misstep that brought me to my knees and of which I'm not proud. I should've known better. I live in the country, but most of my friends and family are city folk and have collected and shared countless harrowing stories of thefts and close calls over the years. I should've been paying more attention, but was excited to see our friends play a small house concert in an old historic recording studio. It was special. We felt special. Our friend had just released his newest CD and we were going to share in this excitement. I was distracted.
So, I blew it. I tucked my purse and tote against the front seat of our car, parked on a busy street, trying to make it less noticeable to passersby. We usually lock our things in the trunk, but we were just running down the street for a short errand before heading to the venue.
Yeah, it was only a matter of minutes.
It took a second for the thief to break the passenger window and grab my two most precious possessions, important documents in my purse and my tote containing everything they would need to become me.
Within minutes, they had already raped our bank account, began using the stolen credit cards, and within 24 hours, the total loss had climbed to almost $10,000. Staggering? Yes. Shocking? Absolutely.
Within 48 hours, new accounts were opened in my name and the loss climbed even higher.
But, that was only the beginning.
I used all of my available resources, searched every single online site I could find. My Music Man jumped in right beside me, fielding phone calls and researching services to help stop the bleeding. I was devastated, ashamed, and frightened. I had lost everything, including my personal planner, my wallet, checkbook, all precious things on which I depend to keep my life in order. Together we walked through the steps, called people, asked questions. We did everything we were told to do as quickly as we could.
Checklists and helpful guides helped me begin the slow, steady climb back to myself. But along the way there were things that I discovered. And, as part of my own vigilantism, I share them with you. As a reward for reading this whole article, I will make my boldest offer to each one of you.
1. A Victimless Crime.
We walked up to the vehicle immediately after the crime to find it surrounded by police. There had actually been a witness who reported the crime. Police responded within seconds. Three officers swarmed -- two in cars and one on a bike -- all nice, quick, helpful, and sympathetic. The police officer on the bike was wonderful to me, showed he cared and provided "inside information" to help me understand the depth of what had just happened. But, I was in shock. I didn't absorb his most important statement until later. He said that the law enforcement community does not consider this kind of crime a priority. The words coming out of his mouth still ring in my ears. "They say this is a victimless crime. Do you feel like a victim?"
The importance of this statement has become more clear over the last few weeks. I have received no additional help or support from the San Francisco Police Department. With rapes, murders, assaults, and drugs topping the list of priorities, I've yet to receive a case number and the circular logic that surrounds my situation is mind-numbing.
2. It Can Get Worse.
It was bad enough to lose such precious and irreplaceable items from my car, but no one can replace the lost hours of sleep coupled with days stacked upon days required to repair, replace, protect, and administer the effects of this crime. I was so lucky to have replacement auto and home insurance, excellent credit card companies, and service-oriented banks. Most folks I spoke with on the phone and worked with in person were terrific. Special thanks go out to our bank, who stopped everything to help us on more than one occasion, stayed late on a Friday night to completely redo all of our accounts, and smiled while they did it. One bank representative even called back a couple of days later to make sure he had set everything up exactly the way we wanted it. Patrick and Christina (with the official titles of "Personal Bankers") are the heroes of this story. I can't thank them enough.
Each day has brought with it a new challenge, phone call, or alert. Just when I think things have calmed down, the ruckus erupts all over again. I've recently learned that the thief can even file a fraudulent tax return in my name to receive tax refunds. Knowing how slowly the IRS rolls, this could take years to unravel.
3. Welcome To Your New Job.
For the last 4 weeks of my life, this has been my full-time job. Fielding phone calls, filling out forms, faxing, mailing, calling, following up, redoing things because the original instructions weren't complete enough. Yes, I've learned to ask detailed questions and cover more bases than ever before. The credit card companies are generally helpful, especially once they transfer you to their Fraud Department. I've received an amazing education from these folks and learned more than I ever wanted to know about identity theft. But, you must ask complete questions, probe very deeply, never take the first answer you're given, and stay away from the customer service folks. Always ask for the Fraud Department.
One recent encounter serves as an example. Many department stores are now offering their own Visa and Mastercards in addition to their in-store cards. I called one of these stores after TransUnion, the king of credit reporting agencies, alerted me to another fraudulent account. The customer service representative assured me that no accounts matched my description: my name, address, social security number came up clear. I asked for their Fraud Department, who echoed this response. I then insisted that she take my name and phone number because something didn't add up. A short time later the phone rang - it was a call from the Fraud Department contact who stated that she looked further and found an in-store account had been opened in my name only 5 days before and the criminal had walked away with over $3,000 in items from their store. She said that with the holiday weekend, it hadn't been processed through their system yet. She also informed me that this account had been given an initial $10,000 limit -- without a full credit check!
The playground of an identity thief is full of many fun ways to capitalize on your good credit. It's the merry-go-round that is most frustrating. Most of my time is spent chasing information, doing the same things over and over for different companies. Often the information I receive is redundant, incomplete, incorrect, or just plain useless.
4. No Matter What They Say, You're Paying For It.
"Zero Liability" means just that. We didn't have to pay for any of the fraudulent charges or stolen funds from our accounts. The credit card companies and banks are happy to tell us that we won't have to pay for any transactions that we did not initiate. But as the losses continue to mount, I know that as a consumer, I will end up paying for this crime.
This is considered the fastest growing crime in the world. This year over 15 million people in the United States alone will become victims of identity theft in some form with an estimated $50 billion (yes, with a "b") in damages. Who do you think will end up paying for this staggering loss of corporate profits? The consumer, that's who. Don't be fooled, we will pay higher prices, higher fees, higher interest rates. We will pay. Trust me on that one.
5. You Now Have A Doppelgänger.
They may not look exactly like you. But they have access to everything to which you have access. It was a surprise when I received a letter from the post office notifying me that my address had been changed. A rental car company sent certified letters charging me with grand theft because the rental car obtained in my name had not been returned as promised. Additionally, cell phones were purchased and accounts established, as well as over 30 new credit cards and loans, all in my name. The losses continue to mount after 4 weeks with my finger in the dyke. As I still do not have a case number or law enforcement contact with which to work, the person or persons can continue to rage on using my good credit as a skate board.
The most stunning fact is this: I have an address, a phone number, and photos of this person or persons. I cannot get access to the police detective assigned to my case. I could deliver this perpetrator with a massive amount of evidence. But, that's reserved for the perfect world in which we do not live...
For added protection, we changed every single lock connected to our lost keys. Unfortunately, both sets of keys were in my purse. The insurance company stated that they normally don't change the locks on vehicles because if our cars are stolen, they will simply replace the cars. Our situation was a bit different because we had no keys left! Everything had been stolen. It felt good to replace the locks and know they didn't have the match.
For the first time in my life, I feel completely vulnerable to a total stranger.
I have compiled and collected an amazing amount of documents and information. And here's my bold offer: If you, or anyone you love, falls victim to this terrible "victimless" crime, I will offer my help for free as a resource. I will give my advice, my experience, my guiding hand, my shoulder to cry on, and get you or your loved one through the darkness. I offer this because the thieves can't win. I will also help those of you who feel you want to learn more. If you reach out to me, I will share what I know freely with great joy and gratitude. I will respond to any and all inquiries.
There's always a golden lining to even the most difficult things in life. If I can help one person with my experience, then I will feel better.