- The Washington Times - Friday, March 14, 2003

The story of my identity theft continues. If you recall, a person in Miami lifted my name and Social Security number late last year or earlier this year and used it to open five phone accounts with Verizon Wireless.

I stumbled upon this crime when I was attempting to open my own account with the same company. They asked me why I would want another phone since I already had so many and, by the way, when was I going to pay the $1,200 bill that I owed? That was my first clue that trouble was brewing.

I immediately called the three credit agencies and had fraud alerts placed on my accounts. This is an alert that lingers on the credit report for at least 90 days and as long as seven years if you request it in writing.

Now, part two.

Just a few days after I placed the fraud alert on my credit files, I received a call from Sprint PCS asking if, indeed, I had requested another set of phones to be placed on my account, bringing that up to six phones. If I didn't return the call, Sprint was going to shut down the phones, as there was an awful lot of activity on them.

I immediately called back and found out that this person was at it again. Fortunately, the fraud alert was at work. My credit was being protected, but not my peace of mind.

Checking back with Verizon, I found out that the ID thief finally had made a payment on "my" account. I forgot to ask if it was made with a credit card. More than likely, it was.

I have received two more calls from credit-issuing agencies another phone store and a credit-card company, asking if I was requesting accounts with their companies. I told them no and asked if they would decline the request.

The most frustrating part of all of this is that while systematic processes seem to be in place, they are all for after-the-fact protection. Even the police say they can't do anything but open a case. That gives you evidence to offer to a credit agency that you have opened a case with the police and shouldn't be responsible for any bills the ID thief has run up on your account, but it doesn't do much to catch the culprit.

Fraud investigators from the companies want to help but admit that there's not a lot they can do but close down the account and start collecting a paper trail, if they can find one.

Typically, the ID thief has your Social Security number and name, uses it to open accounts and then charges merchandise or services on the account until the account is shut down.

The fraud alert at least keeps the thief from opening new accounts in my name. When this happens, the investigators say, the thief eventually quits using the Social Security number and name because he has been "caught" and can't safely use the information any longer.

One investigator (they won't give out their names on the phone) told me that once the Social Security number and name become unusable, thieves sometimes tend to let it lie for a while and then sell it to another ID thief to use in the future. The investigator said to watch out in about a year for more fraudulent charges.

So how does this affect my credit and ability to get credit? If I have caught it early enough, it doesn't, according to the fraud investigators. It becomes a nuisance, in that every credit application must first be approved after the agency calls you on the phone number in your credit report to make sure you're who you say you are. This will mean companies issuing immediate credit, say online or at a retail store, won't be able to issue that immediate credit. You'll have to go home first and let them call you.

What to do? Several sites exist to deal with credit fraud. One of the three major credit-reporting agencies, Experian, lists tips for those who have been victims of credit fraud and those who want to protect themselves from this crime:

Protect yourself. First, make sure a security alert, fraud alert or victim statement is on file with all national credit bureaus.

Inform the creditor. Contact each creditor with the fraudulent account and inform the creditor that the account is fraudulent.

Document all contacts. Make notes of everyone with whom you spoke. Ask for names, department names and phone extensions and record the date you spoke to them. I have set up my personal fraud-journal file on my computer.

Understand the process. Each creditor might have a different process for handling a fraud claim. Make sure you understand exactly what is expected from you and then ask what you can expect. At the conclusion of an investigation, ask the creditor for a document that states you are not responsible for the debt.

Follow up. Make sure a creditor or credit bureau receives everything it has requested. It is always a good idea to place a follow-up call or send a letter for confirmation.

Review reports regularly. Obtain another report several months after you believe everything is cleared up. If a new fraudulent account is discovered, you know how to handle it. If your credit report is back to normal, you can feel confident that all issues were resolved as you expected. It would be a good idea to check your credit report again in six months and then a year later.

Don't throw away files. Keep all notes and correspondence in an accessible file in case they are needed in the future.

M. Anthony Carr has written about real estate for more than 14 years. Reach him by e-mail (manthonycarr@erols.com).

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