Personal finance expert shares her identity theft story

It was a Sunday morning, in Hyattsville, Md., right about 10:30 a.m., and not exactly the time you would expect your purse to be stolen from your car while you're paying for gas. But that's what happened to Harrine Freeman, igniting a nightmarish plunge into the murky waters of identity theft.

Of course, if it can happen to Federal Reserve chairman Ben Bernanke, I suppose it's not surprising this happened to Freeman. But still, this case seems more interesting given that Freeman is a personal finance expert who knows something about identity theft. Her firm, H.E. Freeman, offers credit repair, and Freeman often conducts personal finance workshops at schools, churches and other organizations.

Freeman, who I interviewed about a year ago in an article that appeared on CreditCards.com, dropped me a line, thinking that WalletPop readers might be interested in her story, and I think she's right.


So about that Sunday morning. On July 26, Freeman was inside a convenience store, paying for her gas with cash, when outside, a thief was smashing her passenger window, reaching in and grabbing her purse. Freeman returned to her car to find a woman staring at the shattered glass inside and outside of the car. "Did you see what happened?" Freeman asked.

"Someone broke your window, took your purse and sped away," the woman said.

Freeman figured out that much on her own. Alarmed, Freeman thought of everything in that purse -- credit cards, driver's license, checkbook, her health insurance card, her house keys and her car registration.

"Is there anything else you can tell me?" Freeman asked the woman.

"I have to get my gas," came the reply.

Freeman had her cell phone and quickly called the police, and while she waited for them to arrive, she called the 24-hour customer phone line at Wachovia Bank. The person on the other end took note of Freeman's situation and blocked any use of the debit and credit cards but added that she ultimately would need to close out her checking account the next morning and get a new one, just to be safe.

The next morning, at 9 a.m., Freeman did just that, at a Wachovia branch in Washington, D.C. She closed out the account and opened a new one, and they put her money into that.

Freeman slept well that night and for the next couple. That is, until she learned that on Wednesday, two days after closing her account and getting a new one, somebody went to the drive-through at a Wachovia branch in Woodbridge, Va., and wrote two checks in Freeman's name. One check was for $1,200 and another was for $1,800.

The teller, who should have noticed that the checks were for a closed account, took $3,000 out of Freeman's new account and gave it to the purse snatcher.

And, of course, there were bank fees, overdrafts and non-sufficient fund charges, that followed, totaling $105. In that sense, Freeman was fortunate it hadn't been much more.

Well, long story made a little shorter, Freeman was told that she couldn't get her $3,000 back until an investigation was completed. About three weeks later, quite disturbed by how long the investigation was taking, Freeman called the bank president's office, and to the top management's credit, several hours later, she was told her money would be immediately refunded. And it was.

But there seem to be a couple lessons here for those who are a victim of identity theft.

1) File a police report. "A lot of companies won't believe you otherwise," says Ms. Freeman. "I gave a copy of the police report to the bank the morning I changed accounts, and I think that helped speed up the investigation, at least at first."

2) If you're not getting the help you feel you need from your branch, don't be afraid to go up higher than your bank manager.

3) If you know that a thief has your bank account number, it may just be safer to leave the bank entirely and find a new one. Banks understandably probably won't want to hear that, and again, I give Wachovia high marks for giving Ms. Freeman money back before their investigation was completed, because from what I understand they didn't have to (albeit I give them low marks for letting the investigation drag on, and for having the alleged breach take place at all). But clearly, if a thief has your identification, and your checkbook, and other readily available tools at their disposal to make them seem like you, closing out your account and finding another bank is probably the safest thing you can do.

Which, in the end, is what Ms. Freeman did. "I closed all of my accounts at Wachovia and moved all of my money to my credit union."

And the purse snatcher, meanwhile, is still at large.

Geoff Williams often writes about banking issues for WalletPop.com. He also is the author of C.C. Pyle's Amazing Foot Race: The True Story of the 1928 Coast-to-Coast Run Across America (Rodale).

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