My Low- and High-Tech Tactics to Prevent Identity Theft - Again

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Despite claims to the contrary from credit agencies and identity protection services, if you're the victim of identity theft, ultimately, you're on your own. I learned that firsthand. So let me tell what you need to know, including some decidedly low-tech tips to protect yourself from an identity theft threat you probably never considered.

Recently, as I was going through the mail, I found a letter welcoming my wife as a new AT&T (T) customer. This struck me as odd since both my wife and I had been using a different carrier for more than 10 years. The letter indicated that my wife had opened an account with AT&T mobile and that she had purchased five iPhones and two iPads.

"Honey," I yelled. "I think we have a problem."

And we did. After contacting AT&T, we found out that someone, using my wife's information, had gone into one of its retail stores, opened an account in her name, purchased numerous items and walked out. After I informed AT&T that this was a case of fraud, the company immediately closed the account, informed us that we would not liable for the purchases and said it would remove the inquiries from my wife's credit report.

A Second Theft

No harm, no foul, I reasoned, making a mental note to sign up with the credit protection service LifeLock (LOCK). However, before I could, we received a letter from T-Mobile (TMUS). Yes, you guessed it, welcoming my wife as a new customer. The identity thieves had done the same thing.

Again, T-Mobile was great, canceling the account and telling us we were not liable. However, now I knew we had a serious issue. I immediately called LifeLock and signed up myself, my wife and our two minor children to its service.

I signed up my kids because a common variation on the identity theft scam is to steal and use the Social Security numbers of minors. It's only years later, when your child first uses their number to apply for credit, perhaps for a student loan or to buy their first car, that you find out that their credit has already been ruined.

Hiring LifeLock

LIfeLock says its service "helps safeguard your finances, credit and good name," and representatives were very helpful with this process. They contacted the credit agencies to put a 90-day fraud alert on my wife's credit file, recorded all the instances of fraud and assured us they would be "actively monitoring" our credit.

They were certainly more responsive than the local police department or the fraud departments of AT&T and T-Mobile. After filing a police report, I was told that there was "really nothing more they could do," but that they would keep it on file. The mobile carriers told me that they probably wouldn't pursue the issue and that the losses they incurred from the thefts were "the cost of doing business."

It seemed to me that both the police or the fraud agents could have looked at store surveillance tape to at least get a description of the identity thief, but either due to lack of resources or will, neither seemed too interested in going any further.

Fast-forward 95 days. The fraud alerts had expired, but we remained with LifeLock, which was "monitoring" our credit.

A Third Theft -- and a Fourth

Then we received a new Capitol One (COF) card and an American Express (AXP) Gold Card, both in my wife's name. It looked like we were about to start round two of this nightmare

After calling both credit card companies and reporting the fraud, I called LifeLock. I wanted to know, if it was actively monitoring our credit, how someone could have used my wife's identity illegally.

The explanation was annoying but logical. I was told that active monitoring of members' credit only applies to information that has been transmitted from credit card providers to the credit bureaus.

So according to LifeLock, Capitol One and Amex -- the two biggest credit card issuers in the country, by the way –- had not yet reported to the credit bureaus that accounts were opened in my wife's name, and hence they did not have any information about which to alert us. (This begs the question, "Why use LifeLock?" Hang tight, I'll address that shortly.)

Attacking Through the Mail

One question kept nagging at me -- something representatives at both credit card companies and LifeLock couldn't answer. Why would an identity thief open fraudulent accounts and have the credit cards sent to the home address of their victim? The theft of the devices from the retail stores I understood, but what good were credit cards that they didn't possess?

I got my answer soon after, when for the first time that I could remember, we didn't get any mail at all for two days straight. On a hunch, I went to our local post office to check into the matter, and I was informed that it was being held because we had placed a vacation-hold request.

Except, of course, we hadn't requested a vacation hold. Someone -- I'm taking a wild guess here, but probably the identity thieves -- had gone to the USPS website and requested a hold. I assume the plan was to go into the post office after a few days, request the held mail, using a fake ID with my wife's name on it, and get possession of the credit cards. A clever plan, and one that eliminates the need for the scammers to repeatedly attempt to snag the mail out of our mailbox.

What You Should Do

Here's my advice to help combat the scourge of identity theft.
  • Sign up for a credit protection service like LifeLock. Though it can't prevent the initial identity theft and basically provides the same service the credit bureaus individually provide, it does provide value. Thanks to LifeLock's agreements, its representative was able -– with me on the line -– to directly contact the credit bureaus' fraud agents. In just a few minutes they placed seven-year fraud alerts on both my wife's and my credit with all three agencies, ordered copies of our credit reports and filed a Federal Trade Communications identity theft affidavit. LifeLock records all instances of fraud, in detail, which can help you avoid liability in the future. It also guarantees to reimburse you -- up to $1 million -- for any fraudulent charges you are liable for while a member. The time LifeLock saved me alone in resolving this issue was worth the cost.
  • Talk to the manager of your local post office and your carrier. They receive notifications every morning of which houses have requested a mail hold. Tell your carrier to please leave you a note if you see a hold come up in your name.
  • If you have an external mailbox, either have a mail slot installed in your front door or swap it out for a locking box. Identity thieves have been known to take mail out mailboxes to get credit cards or application forms.
  • Just stay aware. If you notice an increase in the number of solicitors calling your house, if your mail stops for no obvious reason, or if you get an increased number of unsolicited credit card offers, you may have been the victim of identity theft. In any case, it's good practice to review your credit report from time to time, because you're the only one who can truly protect your identity, credit and good name.
The Lund Loop is a free once-weekly curated slice of what I am writing, reading and hearing about in finance, tech, music, pop culture, humor and the good life. But not sports or knitting ... ever!

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