If I had been paying attention, I would have seen that Universe was making plans to kick my ass.
After three years of being too sick to travel, I was excited to go somewhere new and connect with other creative souls.
I’d imagined sitting poolside in the hot sun. I’d planned it for months.
Instead, I arrived in a monsoon.
The airport was shut down due to flooding, and somehow, one of my bags was misplaced. Losing ones belongings is stressful enough, but I was attending Art Unraveled, an art conference, and the missing bag held all of my specialized supplies: my paint and brushes, the papers, beads and baubles that I’d been collecting for months.
The airline representative with whom I spoke smiled broadly and assured me that they have an amazing track record when it comes to recovering lost bags. “We’ll call you the moment we locate your suitcase,” he promised.
Once at the hotel, I went to the bar to eat a light, late supper. Exhausted, but craving company, I wanted someone to listen to my tale of woe and tell me that everything was going to work out. That night, one other woman sat at the bar. Beverly wanted to know all my details: what was my name, where I’d come from, and how long I’d be in Arizona. She asked if I was attending Art Unraveled, and which classes I’d signed up for. She finished one pear martini and ordered another. I thought Beverly was funny, and I appreciated how she helped me forget my lost bag.
Setting my cell phone on top of the bar, just off to my right, I’d only taken one or two bites of my salad when Beverly, gesturing broadly, knocked over her drink with her elbow, submerging my phone. Surveying the damage, I burst into tears.
“I want to check on you tomorrow,” Beverly said, touching my hand. “What room are you in?”
I gave her my room number and excused myself for the night.
Once in my room, I realized my phone was worse off than I expected, and there was little left to do except brush my teeth and go to sleep. The phone would have to wait.
Just after 5 AM, I awoke to the sound of an unfamiliar phone ringing. It was the hotel landline, its red light flashing furiously. A man on the other side of the line identified himself as the hotel night manager. “I’m sorry to call so early in the morning, but there seems to be a problem.”
He told me my credit card had been rejected and that it was hotel policy that every guest had to have a valid card on file. When I asked if I could come down in a few hours to handle things in person, he was polite but firm. “I’d prefer to handle things now,” he said.
Over the next few minutes, I sleepily proceeded to give all my most private information to the kind night manager who kept apologizing for the trouble. In addition to supplying my name, address and phone number, I offered my email address, my credit card number, the 3-digit code off the back, my birthday, and my mother’s maiden name.
And then I rattled off my social security number.
In its entirety.
All the digits.
“I think I have everything I need, “ he said, thanking me for my patience.
The next day, after a full day of workshops in day-old clothes, I finally made my way to my cell phone provider. My new phone beeped and buzzed indicating missed email messages, phone calls, and texts.
Right away, I saw that my credit card company had communicated with me via voicemail as well as email.
Something to the effect that my account may have been compromised.
Still, I’d received notifications like that before, and they’d always turned out to be nothing.
So I went out to dinner with an old friend from high school and on my way back, I stopped at the front desk to confirm that my credit card was now working.“You know, because I received that early morning wake up call,” I laughed.
The clerk at the desk tilted her head. “We would never call a patron in the middle of the night,” she said. “Ever.”
The little hairs on the back of my neck stood up.
The very first call I made from my new cell phone went to the fraud department at my credit card company. From there, I learned that numerous charges had been made to my account: $950 to 1-800-FLOWERS, alone.
My credit card was canceled. I was instructed to call the police, to call the Federal Trade Commission, to notify Social Security, every one of my financial institutions, as well as the consumer credit card bureau. I put an extended freeze on inquiries into my credit, and I doubled up the security on my most vulnerable accounts.
The police officer who took my report told me that it was likely the nice woman at the bar was involved in what turned out to be an elaborate vishing scheme.
“You established yourself as an easy mark by giving out a lot of personal information,” the officer said. “I’m guessing you won’t do that again.”
(Thanks for the shame, Officer Lutz.)
Over the last week, I’ve spent dozens of hours on the phone, trying to figure out how long it may take to recover from this breach in security. The unpleasant reality is that it will likely take years, and I will probably always need the services of Lifelock, as my information is already floating around out there.
I’m sharing my humiliation in hopes that I can prevent someone else from falling prey to a scheme like I did.
I’m guessing most of you have heard this before, but it bears repeating.
Outside of your employer, never, under any circumstances, give anyone your full social security number.
Not your spouse.
Not your doctor.
They don’t need it.
You get one, and it’s a huge hassle to try to rebuild after it has been compromised.
Additionally, don’t share personal information with people you don’t know.
I tend to operate under the assumption that there are more honest people in the world than dishonest ones. While in Arizona, I learned that con artists walk amongst us, that there are people who get a thrill out of hurting other people, just because they can. I learned that people lie, cheat, and manipulate to get what they want. And I learned that I made myself vulnerable to this type of attack because I have been protected and cared for most of my adult life.
I left Phoenix in a dust storm. The airport was shut down as a cloud of brown rolled over us, the air smelling of sulphur and dirt.
I would be remiss if I didn’t acknowledge that during my darkest hours, wonderful people showed up for me: strangers offering food and clothes and kindness; an art teacher who allowed me to use all of her materials; an old friend who brought me money and clothes and flowers; another friend who offered hugs and emotional support; my parents, offering their love over the phone.
I’m focusing on this last part of the story because the gratitude piece is crucial.
I could focus on being victimized, but I’m choosing to focus on the other stuff.
The good stuff.
The wonderful people I met, the old connections that were restored.
Because that has truly been the story of my life. No matter how lost and alone we might feel that we are, we are never truly alone.
And by the way, the Art Unraveled conference was amazing.
If you can believe it, I plan to attend again next year.
I’ll just stay in a different hotel.
Ever had your identity compromised? What was your takeaway from the experience?
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