Corrections or additions?

This article by Barbara Fox was prepared for the January 21, 2004

issue of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Will The Real Barbara Fox Please Stand Up?

My name is Barbara Fox, and I share two things with a person in New

England named Barbara Vanasse: the name Barbara and eight of the nine

digits of my social security number. If you read this, Barbara

Vanasse, and you are the Barbara Vanasse who has managed to mix up

your credit record with my credit record, be forewarned. I’m out to

get you, starting now.

Nearly 20 years ago, some credit reporting service confused my credit

rating (excellent) with your credit rating (terrible). Over the years

I have posted countless warning notices at the credit bureaus, but

your credit record stays mingled with mine, and you have incurred

hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of credit card debt, mortgage

debt, and student loan debt.

Because you, Barbara Vanasse, have no authentic address or telephone

number, I am the one your creditors call. I have to inform these

creditors, one by one, about the sorry truth that they will probably

never get their money back.

In other words, I am one of an estimated 9.9 million Americans who

suffer from identity theft. This year the thieves stole $5 billion –

not directly from me or from the other individuals – but from credit

card companies and other financial institutions that were not able to

collect the debts.

So I was very interested to talk to Anthony Esposito, a postal

inspector, who says that the federal government has made preventing

this crime a top priority and points to the USPS’ Operation Identity

Crisis campaign with Law and Order’s Jerry Ohrbach as the spokesperson

(www.usps.com/ postalinspectors). "Last year, nationwide, we arrested

12,000 criminals, 6,000 for identity-theft related crimes pertaining

to checks, credit cards, and loans," says Esposito.

Esposito speaks to the New Jersey Banker’s Association as part of a

full-day "New Jersey Fraud Symposium and Expo" on Wednesday, January

28, beginning at 8:30 a.m. at the Woodbridge Hilton. At the bank

seminar he provides information on how criminals are using the U.S.

mails to facilitate identity theft crimes. Cost: $160. Call

609-520-1221.

Esposito grew up in Howard Beach, New York, and graduated in 1972 with

an accounting major from Ferris State in Big Rapids, Michigan. One of

2,000 inspectors in the U.S. Postal Service, he has been an inspector

for more than 25 years.

Any time the mails are used in furtherance of a scheme designed to

obtain money, and false information is provided, that’s mail fraud,

says Esposito. Whether the thief steals mail to obtain credit

information, or just finds a wallet, if the thief requests a credit

card be sent to a false address, he is committing mail fraud, because

the address is one that he controls.

And just because the crime against you involves money does not rule

out physical danger, says Esposito, because financial criminals can

also be violent. "They are committing other crimes, and some of the

other crimes are murder and armed robbery."

Esposito proudly tells of his most exciting case, which led to solving

the longest unsolved murder of a New Jersey municipal police officer

in state history. It started with an identity theft complaint from a

convicted murderer in Rahway State Prison. Robert Zarinsky was serving

a life sentence for the 1969 murder of 17-year-old Rosemary

Calandriello of Atlantic Highlands when he complained that someone had

stolen $110,000 from the trust fund set up for him by his late mother.

The case became really exciting when Esposito and his team identified

a suspect in another murder. "We had reason to believe the murderer’s

sister was involved. When we went to her, she said, ‘How about if I

gave you information which would help you solve another crime’ and

proceeded to tell us how her brother and her cousin had killed a

Rahway police officer, Charles Bernoskie, on November 28, 1958, as

they fled from a burglary job at a car dealership.

Sometimes thieves steal mail with financial information outright, says

Esposito. "They look for envelopes containing business checks – they

might get the check for an insurance settlement to cover the loss of a

vehicle. Through a cleansing process, using different bleaches, they

change the name of the payee to themselves. Or they get credit and

identification in the payee’s name so that they can cash the check."

You can spot checks that have been altered or washed. Hold the check

to a light source, and you will notice there is an ever-so-slight

stain in the area of the signature or amount.

Still another scam is to use a software program to create the

counterfeit money order. "Hold it to a light source and the image of

Benjamin Franklin should appear," says Esposito. His prevention

advice:

Stay alert to the time of the month in which you get credit card

statements. "If it is two or three weeks late, you may be a victim."

Monitor the expiration dates and contact the issuer if you don’t

receive a replacement on time.

Shred or burn old bank statements. Also be careful with discarded

credit card offers, but Esposito notes that even a telephone book

listing can give the clever thief sufficient access to the information

he needs. It goes without saying that you should not leave receipts at

ATM machines or gas pumps.

Memorize your Social Security number and passwords. Don’t use your

date of birth as your password and don’t record passwords on papers

you carry with you.

Guard outgoing mail. Don’t leave mail in your mailbox overnight or on

weekends. In fact, you may not want to leave mail in your mailbox at

all. "We invite people mailing correspondence that contains financial

information to deposit that at the post office, rather than leave it

in their home mail box," says Esposito. Though sidewalk mail boxes may

seem impregnable, they are not.

Review your credit report annually. Every New Jersey resident is

entitled to an annual free copy for each of the three credit reporting

bureaus. You might find, for instance, that Nordstrom’s inquired about

your credit with regard to issuing you a credit card – and you have

never set foot in Nordstrom’s.

If you feel you have been the victim of identity theft, here are the

numbers to call.

A postal inspector at 973-693-5412, if the mails have been used. Or

your local police department.

The Federal Trade Commission at 1-877-ID-THEFT or

(www.consumer.gov/idtheft), the federal government’s central consumer

assistance and information center. It has educational materials,

self-help tools, and an online reporting form.

Three major credit reporting bureaus: Equifax, 800-525-6285; Experian,

888-397-3742; and TransUnion, 800-680-7289.

Check guarantee companies, if bank accounts have been set up

fraudulently in your name: Telecheck at 800-366-2425; and the

International Check Services Company at 800-526-5380. Your file can be

flagged so that counterfeit checks will be refused.

Consumer Credit Counseling Service, at 800-388-2227, if fraudulent

charges appear on your account. The service can help clear false

claims from your credit report. Dial this number and your call goes –

not to some Midwest call center – but to Consumer Credit Counseling

Service of Central New Jersey at 193 Nassau Street. Once devoted

mostly to helping people with bankruptcies, it also works with

identity theft.

Most identity theft victims are more likely to lose sleep than lose

money, because the credit card companies are eager to reimburse their

clients for any problems. "People are true victims when they get very

frightened because they feel the criminal has a lot of personal

information," says Esposito. "They might get criminal records attached

to their names, and they are afraid to report the fraud to law

enforcement because of the potential revenge factor," says Esposito.

I have never actually lost money, though I have certainly lost sleep

and time. My credit record must be expunged regularly, or collectors

will call at all hours of the day and night and refuse to believe that

somebody named Vanasse does not live at my address. And every six

months, when my bank does a swing through the credit bureau databases,

it sends me a nasty note saying that because of my lousy credit

history I may no longer belly up to the trough of my cash reserve

credit line. Never mind that I have been banking there for 15 years

and that the branch manager of my bank is sympathetic to my problem.

The letter has been automatically generated and, once more, I must

work my way back through the red tape.

But victimhood takes a long time to erase and it may never completely

go away. Esposito tells of a victim from seven years ago who put fraud

alert blocks on her credit accounts, as directed. The alerts

cautioned: Do not give credit to this person without direct contact.

"Last month she could not get a new cell phone," says Esposito,

"because her credit record was blocked."

The same thing happened to me. It’s a good thing my spouse has an

unblemished record, so we could put our cell phones in his name.

– Barbara Fox


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