The Truth About Identity Theft: A Cautionary Tale

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.

images-1Instead, 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.

It’s yours.

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.

And yet.

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.

Probably.

Ever had your identity compromised? What was your takeaway from the experience?

tweet me @rasjacobson

 

 

 

 

 

19 responses to “The Truth About Identity Theft: A Cautionary Tale

  1. Renee – your story makes me so sad, because we want people to be honest with us and we expect people to be honest. But, in reality, there are few people who are honest and our world is worse off because we can’t trust people. A couple of years ago, my step-mother was scammed by some very skillful scam artists – it cost her several thousand dollars and made me very angry, mainly because I couldn’t protect her and we couldn’t do anything about it – legally or financially. It sounds like your trip was a good time and you enjoyed the art conference. I love your art and enjoy seeing it pop up on Facebook. I also love reading your posts – they are filled with honesty and integrity – two very important values or world so dearly needs. Have a great day, a great week, and continue to move forward. I am. Peace.

    • Hi Clay! Thank you for your kind words. The trip was interesting. I definitely met a lot of wonderful people, and I may even have some opportunities to teach art in the future, which is a very exciting prospect for me. I’d actually love to find a way to marry the written word with art, as you can probably guess, both modes of expression are of equal import for me.

      You’ve been writing a fair bit this summer. I’ve enjoyed reading without commenting this summer. Keeps me under the radar, which, it seems is where I’m supposed to be for the time being.

      • Thank you. I remember your advice that first summer – to keep it focused. At the time I was trying to write daily and some of the writing was ‘summer writing’ – some was good and some was not! I try to keep schedule, but sometimes life gets in the way. Have a great day.

  2. Outside of your employer, never, under any circumstances, give anyone your full social security number.

    Not your spouse.

    That last sentence was very unexpected.😮 Why did you include a spouse? Very curious…

    …because I have been protected and cared for most of my adult life.

    Another intriguing insert Renee. Do you feel overprotection does more harm to us than being allowed to learn life’s lessons & thrills firsthand through BOTH mistakes and successes?🙂❤

    Ever had my own identity compromised? What was my takeaway from the experience?

    At least twice in my lifetime I’ve had my financial well-being (or intimate info) stolen and or compromised that I remember. My takeaway was threefold…

    One, do not follow the crowd or society or corporate America, i.e. popular methods of hyper-convenience via electronic banking and applications! Though today many American merchants are moving away from handling hard cash (due to big corporate pressures and revenue preferences) for various reasons, I keep only two debit cards, both with only an average balance of $200, absolutely NO CREDIT CARDS (mega-banking firms always push for higher interest rates in a plethora of tricky subtle ways) and finally, what little liquid assets I have they are spread out amongst a variety of holdings not accessible by strangers/theives. Only me.

    Two, I no longer view negative experiences as disasters or failures, only opportunities to flip them into more wisdom.🙂

    And three, when I have gone through perceived hard times, like you Renee, I am once again reminded what is MUCH MORE VALUABLE in life: close friends and family! But more importantly that they and I have invested quality & quantity TIME and EFFORT into each other that far surpasses any money or material things! Which has another sub-takeaway… proper life/organic priorities.😉❤

    Renee, since I've known you (from Jan 2013!), I have watched you grow in fantastic phenomenal ways, through thrilling joys and horrible lows, only to become an INCREDIBLE human being! You are on a wonderful refreshing journey and will be just fine. I promise! Now, answer my first two questions!😛 LOL

    • Great questions! Actually, I shared all my information with my ex-husband: social security number, credit card numbers, pin codes, everything. Obviously, we are no longer married ~ and so I’ve had to change all that information. The police officer who took the report was really the one who suggested no sharing that information with anyone, as he noted, marriages don’t last the way they used to.

      Ahem.

      And yes, I do feel overprotection is just as damaging as leaving people under-protected/neglected. There is definitely a sweet spot in there, and I guess the journey for each of us is to find that place for ourselves. It’s forever being negotiated in my life.

      And while I’m not *happy* that this has happened to me, I do recognize that I have some information now that will help me to be empathic and helpful to others who may be going through something similar (or not). Compassion breeds compassion, y’know? Have a great day, Professor. And thank you for challenging me to think so early in the day.

      • …as he noted, marriages don’t last the way they used to.

        Ahem.

        In some cases that’s probably true given the rising divorce rates in America. However, I would humbly add… “traditional inflexible marriages won’t last the way they used to in more ancient times versus modern evolving social and economic dynamics.” Successful long-term marriages today must adapt, be more open-minded and romantically progressive to function and grow in healthy ways given the NEW ever evolving socio-economic forces.😉

        …I do recognize that I have some information now that will help me to be empathic and helpful to others who may be going through something similar (or not). Compassion breeds compassion, y’know?

        I do know, yes! You are spot on Renee. Our compassion AND empathy meters have been in decline here for several years if not decades — and new social paradigms are in desperate need and implimentation! Basic human nature cannot and should not stay the same or stagnate. And YOU Lady are becoming a fantastic advocate for those changes!

        ROCK ON wiser stronger compassionate empathic Renee!😀

  3. OMG I’m so sorry this happened to you! These phishers took advantage of you in a weakened state given all you’d been through getting there. I hope you were able to totally nip the damage in the bud.

    I once went to renew my drivers license to find that it had already been renewed, months before, at a branch in another part of the state where I’d never been. This was in 1994, back when it was still common to print your SSN on your checks! Anyway, long story short, I got a new DL number and moved on, but it took a year and a ton of phone calls.

    • Jim! You’re not kidding about the phone calls! I’ve already been on for SIX hours today! SIX. I just handled it, I think. (at least for today.) Can you even believe that we used our SS#s for everything back in the day?

  4. Hi Renee, you know I went through that with a “friend” to the tune of $96,000 she charged on credit cards that she applied for in my name and requested a secondary card that has her name in it. She told the police she was my “partner.” Single-white-female kind of scary s*#t. It was four years of headaches and ultimately testifying against her. I share this with everyone because sadly even your “friends” may not be your friends. Unfortunately we all need to keep our radar up. Old friends are the best friends.

    • Sara. I have to admit, I was not as empathic as I could have been when you were going thru all your shit. I had NO idea the breadth and depth of these matters, and I apologize for not getting it at the time. You are one tough cookie. Please come home soon. I need a hug from a best girlfriend.

  5. Oh, honey, if it’s not one thing, it’s another, right? I think because we are honest people we believe in the inherent honesty of people around us. Sadly, that honesty seems to be getting scarcer every day; the thing is, I just can’t bring myself to give up on it. I don’t want to bow to the cynicism of thinking everyone is out to get me.

    I love that you are able to focus on the positives in this chapter of your life story. Take care, my friend. ❤️

    • SAHM: I feel jaded. I do. I know I wrote about gratitude, and I do feel that, I do. But I’m also hurt and feeling unsupported with all of this. It sure would be nice to have a fabulous boyfriend to hold my hand thru this mess.

      I’ll take your written support with gratitude!🙂

  6. That super sucks. I was wondering how it happened. Working in retail has made me much more aware of the scams and cons out there, but I’ve fallen for a scam before too and also had my credit card number stolen (while I still had the card in my possession). Thankfully both way smaller consequences than your issue. I’m sorry this happened to you, but it’s nice of you to share your experience. I’ve never heard of this particular scam, and there’s a reason these kinds of scams work. You educating us on what to look for is taking away some of those reasons!

  7. So sorry to hear about this. One sidelight – I disagree with Prof Taboo’s advice. Credit cards offer much more protection than debit cards. I’ve never had one and most likely never will. And interest rates don’t apply if you pay the balance each month.

    I’ve had a few fairly minor credit card scams, but but American Express and Visa catch them before I’m even aware, and they either reverse the charges or just eat them. I haven’t been out anything.

    I prefer to lose my money through investment scams. I lost over $70,000 some years ago to a viatical company whose president is still in prison for taking all the money. More recently around $25,000 buying stock in an oil company that blew the money instead of using it as it was supposed to be used. It’s difficult to know what investment information to rely on.

    Glad your attitude is upbeat, Renee. As an associate of mine used to say, illegitimi non carborundum!

  8. Ugh. That is so hard. And yes, I had my identity stolen. No one knows who it was, or how it happened, but someone had my SSN, established about 8-10 credit cards and maxed them out, and applied for several others before anyone notified me that there was a problem. It took several weeks of wrangling, multiple inches’ worth of paperwork, and a couple of visits to the police station before I was in the clear.

    My silver lining? No credit card applications in the mail for me – not for another seven years.

    Stay strong =)))

  9. Yikes! I’m so sorry you had to deal with this. Reading through the early morning phone call part made me cringe…. Please don’t be offended but my first thought was “OMG, seriously you gave out your SS#?!?” But the truth is, we all think we would never get sucked that far into a scam but these people are sophisticated, they know how to work it and it gets worse and more complex every single day. And it’s no longer just the elderly getting taken. It’s a pretty frightening world we live in these days. Thanks for sharing your perspective, it’s something we all need to constantly be wary of!

  10. Dear Renée,
    I am so sorry to hear about your misfortune in Arizona. the really sad thing about people taking advantage of you is that it can cause you to distrust everyone.
    I’m glad to hear that you plan on returning to Arizona despite the jerk that robbed you. Arizona is one of my favorite states. My wife and I spent a couple of weeks in Sedona a few years ago and loved it. I live in Alaska now and love it even more.
    God bless and keep your chin up.
    Your friend Tony C

  11. This is so awful. Thanks for sharing. There’s nothing wrong with looking for the best in people, but there is something wrong with trying to rob us of that belief. Let’s keep believing and stay alert. Hugs!

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