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
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
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
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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