Our Identity Theft Experience

by Joe Plemon on January 10, 2011

Well, it is time to go eat a frog”, my wife bemoaned recently as she was cleaning up the breakfast dishes.  She was, of course, referring to the old adage,  “If you eat a frog the first thing in the morning, the rest of your day will be better.”

What was her frog? Going to the bank and to the police department to deal with having her identity stolen.

Let’s rewind a couple of weeks.

After opening her December bank statement, Jan plopped it on my desk.  “Do you have any idea what this $123.28 charge to Ebay’s Half.com is?

“Well, no.” I replied, examining the statement, “But the purchase was made on December 10, so I am guessing it was for a Christmas present.”

You know I keep meticulous records.” Jan replied. “For one thing, I don’t have any record of this as a Christmas gift. For another, I didn’t make any Christmas purchases from my business account. It just doesn’t make sense.

“I suppose you will have to do some research, starting with calling that 800 number on the statement.”

Jan groaned as she walked away. “I have better things to do today than make a bunch of phone calls.

But she made that phone call. Here is the sequence of how this unraveled:

January 3: The phone call, of course, took Janice to an automated response. A computerized female voice told her that she needed to fax the following information to Half.com in order to initiate an investigation: driver’s license, debit card info, bank statement and email address.  She complied.

January 5: Jan received an email from Half.com stating that the $123.28 charge was for “Anatomy and Physiology: Kenneth S. Saladin (Hardcover 2009)”.

The email also stated, and I quote:

“If you do not recognize these charges and feel that they are unauthorized then we would suggest contacting your banking institution to dispute the charges with them to get your money back, they should have a procedure to follow in this situation.

Half.com also recommends contacting your local law enforcement if you would like them to do an investigation.

At this time we cannot provide you with anymore information in regards to these unauthorized charges. If law enforcement wishes to communicate with Half.com, please have them write to  stopfraud@ebay.com.”

January 6: Eating the frog…Jan made an appointment at the bank and I tagged along, partly to give moral support and partly because I could see the seeds of a blog post. Things actually went well. Jan had to complete a very simple complaint form, but the bank immediately refunded the questioned charge as a “temporary provisional credit” pending further investigation of her complaint. Having a copy of the letter from Half.com was very helpful in establishing credibility. Of course we checked to see if other charges had been made (they hadn’t). Jan also cancelled the debit card and applied for a new one.

January 6: We then drove to the police station to file a complaint. We gave the officer a copy of the bank statement and the letter from Half.com. Although he didn’t give us much hope that he could find the criminal, he assured us that he would follow up and keep us posted. He also told us (as did the bank) that these things are very common.

What have we learned from our Identity Theft experience?

  • That Identity Theft can and does happen.
  • That dealing with a local small town bank is nice. We were glad that we could sit down and talk to a real person who was able to handle our concerns.
  • That we need to consider identity theft protection.
  • That some frogs are not as bad as expected. Again, dealing with a local bank really helped. We probably didn’t spend more than an hour total with the bank and the police.
  • We need online banking in order to be able to monitor our accounts more closely. Yes, technology lag is a downside of small town banking, but ours recently offered online banking and we signed up.
  • Some crooks only steal a little. We are still puzzled that this thief, after one successful purchase on Jan’s debit card, didn’t try for more.
  • Seldom used accounts are vulnerable. Jan hardly ever uses this account, which made the purchase even more noticeable.
  • That the security freeze we had previously placed with all three credit reporting agencies, while giving us some identity theft protection, is not foolproof.

Readers: Have you ever had your identity stolen? How much hassle did you have getting your money back? What steps did you take to prevent future theft?  Any tips for us?

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Tim @ Faith and Finance January 10, 2011 at 10:31 am

I had someone in Germany use my Chase card numbers (not sure how they got it) and Chase notified me via phone. Without hesitation they reversed the charges.

That’s one positive thing about credit cards. Your chances of reversal or disputing charges are much better (in my opinion) and generally happen quicker than dealing with the bank/vendor.

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John January 10, 2011 at 11:21 am

The small charge is a common tactic. We had a $5.95 charge (theft) to our VISA account last summer. It is my opinion that the credit card thieves try to get by with just a little to stay below the radar screen and then come back later with a larger charge. Digilence by the card owner is necessary. Our bank that issued our VISA is also very aggressive at monitoring abnormal charges and notifying us.

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joeplemon January 10, 2011 at 11:43 am

@Tim,
I am impressed that Chase notified you by phone. I suppose they were able to flag an uncommon charge (from Germany). In my case, I doubt if they would have noticed a text book purchase, but I would agree that the dispute process would probably have been simpler than going to a bank and filling out a complaint. Still…the frog wasn’t all that bad. 🙂

@John,
I suspected that the small charge was a “trial tactic”. But it was three weeks before we discovered it which causes me to wonder why they hadn’t run up further charges in those three weeks. Hmmmm. At any rate, as you said, we need to be more diligent about monitoring our account because we would be the only ones who would know that certain charges, such as a text book, are not legitimate.

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Tal January 10, 2011 at 4:56 pm

So you had an unauthorized charge on your account, called the 800 number on the statement, and then followed the automated instructions to fax very private information like a copy of your driver’s license, debit card, and bank statement to a company you’ve never heard of or done business with? Glad it worked out, but sounds very risky to me. They could have taken that information and done all kinds of things with it (like contacted your bank (they now had your account number, personal identifiers like DOB, Full Address, DL #, etc) and could have initiated transfers, opened new accounts, etc).

If you’re at all concerned with charges not being legitimate, ESPECIALLY from an online site, why not just go to the bank first and have them start the investigation? These days I would NEVER send information like that, especially after being directed from the 800 number that the ‘scammers’ gave you. There’s no reason a legitimate merchant would need copies of all of that in order to lookup payment information. Remember, it’s the merchant’s burden of proof to show that the charge is legitimate when questioned by the bank, not the other way around…

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retireby40 January 10, 2011 at 6:30 pm

I would freak out if I see a suspicious charge on our debit card. We don’t use the debit card and it would be very obvious. I would hate to change our debit card number.
I’ve had a strange charge on my credit card before and was able to get it off pretty easily by just calling the credit card company.

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joeplemon January 10, 2011 at 7:20 pm

@Tal,
The process does sound risky, but I am not sure what we could have done differently. Jan DID call the bank first. They told her to contact the vendor (Ebay Half.com), which she did, using the 800 number on our bank statement. At that time we had canceled the debit card, so the number we sent to Ebay was invalid and we weren’t too concerned about Ebay using the bank account information they requested for illegal gain. We did have an account with Ebay Hal.com…which did not show the questionable charges. This should have alerted Ebay that Jan did not make those charges, but they still pointed us back to the bank. Quite a runaround!

@Retire by 40,
I would freak out too if I never used the card! It seems from the comments I am getting that credit card companies are more efficient in dealing with questionable charges than banks/debit cards are.

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Squirrelers January 10, 2011 at 11:25 pm

I had received a call from my CC company that there was suspicious activity, and they asked me to call a certain number. So, I did not call that number and instead contacted the number on my card. You never know, calls like that out of the blue could be by crooks!

Anyway, to make a long story short, the credit card company told me that a large charge had been made to a business in Japan. Now, I did not make any charges with that card at all during that time frame, let alone a charge to a company in Japan. The CC company took care of it, canceled the card, and sent me a new one.

It was alarming at first, but was handled quickly with no charge to me and a new credit card issued.

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Roshawn @ Watson Inc January 11, 2011 at 10:40 am

Wow. I am glad that it was detected in a timely fashion, and you were able to get the charge reversed. I wonder why the address that the book was sent to wasn’t available for the police report. I know that usually, they never track down who the scammer is, but it does feel nice when they do follow through from a justice standpoint.

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Everyday Tips January 11, 2011 at 12:06 pm

Someone got a hold of our American Express card account number and went charging around Detroit like a madman (or madwoman). In one day they charged 19,800 dollars. They bought a pool, sneakers, and all kinds of things at home depot. The funny thing was, I still had my card. I don’t know if a gas station attendant wrote down my numbers went I went in to pay for gas once or what.

Surprisingly, I did not have to pay one dime for this. The credit card company had froze my account and called me because of the huge charges. I said none were mine, and that was it. I don’t know if they ever prosecuted anyone or not.

What could have been swallowing a giant bullfrog really turned out to be just a tadpole because Amex made it so easy to fix!

Glad things worked out for you!

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JohnG Colorado Home Loan Mortgage January 11, 2011 at 2:19 pm

I’m glad you got out alive. My parents had a similar event happen to them, except our identity thief decided to try to get as much out of us as he could as soon as he managed to steal my father’s information. Our local credit union was great about freezing all payments, and my parents didn’t lose any money. Unfortunately, the thief was never caught, apparently he was a professional.

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Evan January 11, 2011 at 4:22 pm

I know it is not the point of the story/post but wait a minute! You run a personal finance blog and don’t utilize online banking?

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joeplemon January 12, 2011 at 1:58 pm

@Squirrelers,
Glad to hear your CC company was on the ball!

@Roshawn,
Evidently, the address the book was sent to WAS available, but only to police. The p0lice told me they would contact Half.com at the email address in the letter, but I haven’t heard yet what they learned.

@Everyday,
Tadpoles are always better than bullfrogs. Glad Amex was able to detect those charges. $19,800 in one day! I get tired thinking about spending that much money. Don’t you wonder if the criminals were caught? Do you think Amex ate that much money?

@John,
The common threads that I have picked up from these comments is that 1) those whose identities are stolen do not pay and 2) the criminals don’t get caught. I am glad it worked out well for your parents and for other victims (myself included of course), but the banks have to be getting this money back by raising rates on everyone.

@Evan,
Hey. ANYONE could write a personal finance blog WITH electronic banking. It takes real skill to do so without it. Just kidding. My bank only recently offered it and so we have signed up. We are now in the 21st century.

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Suba @ Wealth Informatics January 12, 2011 at 9:37 pm

Ouch! Glad it didn’t cause more damage. I had my number stolen once and the guy/girl went on a shopping spree – rolex, some costly dress companies that I have never heard of… AmEx caught up pretty quickly (withing matter of hours) but the card already had a balance of 25k+. I didn’t even realize something was wrong because I had the card with me. Of all the purchase they made, the thing that trigerred the fraud alert was entering a wrong zipcode in a gas station! Anyway, when the person called I almost started to cry, but she told me that she will take care of everything and she did. All the charges were reversed within a day and I got a new card overnighted. I didn’t have to do anything, but it was a scary few hours.

Btw, if you have AAA, they offer free identity protection thing. I have it through one of my credit card but I signed up with AAA too.

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Edward January 12, 2011 at 10:14 pm

Checking your bank transactions and statements is important. This is to monitor your credits and prevent identity theft. It is also important to know where or how to report identity theft.

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Kay Lynn @ Bucksome Boomer January 15, 2011 at 7:33 pm

I had never heard that frog saying before, but have to remember that for future use.

Glad to know it worked out. I had a new card get diverted in the mail system. I didn’t use the card regularly so didn’t notice when the replacement didn’t arrive. I did notice the bill with lots of charges at restaurants and stores in Georgia while we lived in California.

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MoneyCone January 23, 2011 at 8:37 am

Sorry to hear about this. I’ve had this happen in the past and it is always stressful.

I don’t think we can really avoid this but the best you can do is be vigilant. One would think online shopping is the culprit, more often than not, it is actually places where your card is taken elsewhere for authorization – restaurants. There really is no way to get around it.

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Tamara November 1, 2011 at 2:03 pm

I would be very carefuly providing your information like that. Keep a good look out for your wife’s info now. This company is actually a fraudulent company and the number they provided for you actually has nothing to do with Ebay’s Half.com website. I am a banker that just dealt with a situation like this for one of my customers. Turned out that half.com does not and will not speak over the phone about situations like that. they speak to you by email. Unfortunately your wife has sent her personal information to an illegal company now. I would recommend that you have her credit report pulled every quarter just to make sure nothing fraudulent is happening.

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