Monday, July 2, 2018

Lessons Learned From My Experience With ID Theft

I got the call at about 8:20 on a Monday morning a few years ago. It was my Credit Union. They had detected some "unusual activity" on my Visa check card and had put a hold on the account. The lady on the line read me the charges in question and asked if I had made them. I hadn't. The lady then asked me to go in to the nearest Credit Union location, where I needed to fill out a report.

Turns out that someone had made a number of charges to my account overnight. They had bought about $120 in songs from I-tunes, opened up a Netflix account, bought something online from an electronics store, and tried to buy a bunch of cosmetics from Amazon. In all, about $650 went through before the Credit Union put a hold on the account.

After I filled out and signed the report for my Credit Union, they replaced 100% of the money to my account. But it did take two days for the money to show back up. The Credit Union handled everything with the police (they caught the woman who used my numbers - more on that in a moment). In the end the incident didn't cost me anything, other than some of my time and a sick feeling in my stomach.

How my information was stolen

About six weeks prior to this, I had eaten lunch at one of my favorite restaurants - a somewhat upscale Asian restaurant in Hickory, NC (I won't name the restaurant because it really wasn't their fault). Its one of those restaurants where the waitress brings your check to you in one of those small leather folders, you put the cash or credit card inside, she then takes the payment, bringing back your change and/or receipt in the folder.

Apparently, in the few minutes my waitress had my check card, she jotted down my card number, expiration date, my name, and even the 3-digit security code (the CVV number) off the back of the card. It was everything she needed to use my card online.

Then she actually did something smart (from her point of view). She didn't use my number right away. Instead she waited more than a month before using it. I guess her thought process was to wait until I had made many other purchases with the card so as to obscure who might have stolen the numbers.

Unfortunately for her, it just happened that the card/account I used for that meal was not my main account. It was an emergency back-up account I rarely use. In fact, I only use that card a couple of times a year - just enough to keep it active.  That meal was the only time I used that card in about six-months, which made it real easy to pinpoint where & who stole the number. The police investigated and actually traced several other stolen account numbers to her. Same method of operation each time, waiting a month or more before using the stolen numbers.

Lessons learned

1) Your information can be stolen anywhere. This restaurant isn't some low-class dive, but is actually a fairly upscale establishment. A place that I am a semi-regular. Not somewhere I would expect to have to worry about such things.

2) Your information can be stolen by anyone. I remember the waitress in question. She was young, very nice, friendly, even sweet. And quite attractive, frankly. I don't know her motivations, but she wasn't some crack-head, meth addict, or homeless person. Quite the contrary, she seemed to have a lot going for her. Definitely not someone I would expect to be an identity thief.

3) They don't actually have to have your card to use it. As long as they have the basic information, a thief can easily use your accounts online.

4) Identity thieves can be quite sneaky. Had I used my regular card, she probably would have gotten away with it by waiting more than a month like she did. My regular account would have had dozens of other transactions on it by the time she had used it, making it almost impossible to pinpoint a likely culprit. It was just bad luck on her part that she got caught.

5) Never, ever let your cards out-of-sight. My waitress only had possession of my card for maybe two minutes, but it was long enough to jot down all the information she needed. If I can't keep my eyes on my card at all times, I now pay with cash - even if it is a bit inconvenient.

Identity theft is now a $20+ billion dollar industry with more than 10 million people a year having their identity stolen, according to the latest stats from the FBI. It is also the fastest growing crime in America. Please take the security of your financial information very seriously.
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