Identity Theft. Did Someone Just Clone Me?

Identity theftI was driving home from lab one evening when my phone rang.  I normally don’t pick it up when driving, but I was expecting a call, so I answered:

Me: Hello?
Guy: This is Sergeant [Jones] of the SFPD, can I speak to Alan Marnett?
Me: (Quickly pulling car over and beginning to sweat) Speaking.
Sergeant: Mr. Marnett, SWAT just busted a house in south San Francisco.  On the kitchen table was a mound of cocaine and credit cards with your name on them – can you explain this?

Oh man.  The closest I’d come to a white powder was the series of hexapeptides I was synthesizing in lab… and there definitely wasn’t a mound of those.  That call marked the exact minute that my life became unnecessarily complicated for the next year and a half.  That was how I discovered my identity had been stolen.

Over the next week, I discovered four fraudulent credit card accounts and five unknown “previous” addresses.  The nightmare was in full swing.  All of the accounts had balances and it was now my word versus theirs.  One company performed a “fraud investigation” and determined that I was, in fact, lying.  A police report and 12 months later, it was settled.

Until they got into my bank account.  Six months and another police report later, the money was back in my account.  And I was lucky, not everyone gets it back.

As a grad student, I naïvely thought that I had little to offer thieves… a credit card or two with low limits and a tiny back account, surely not the stuff criminal minds dream of.  But that’s precisely it.  They’re like Walmart- low margin, high volume.

Lab is stressful enough- you don’t need to spend all day explaining that you are not responsible for the $3000 purchase of make-up from the home shopping network.

Here are a few steps that can make sure you don’t get cloned without your knowledge.

Take a look at your credit reports.

There are three main credit reporting agencies: TransUnion, Experian and Equifax.

Once a year, you can obtain a free credit report from each one of these.  Since you will be asked to input sensitive personal information, be sure you go to the right site- not an imposter.  The TV sites will get you on fine print and you’ll be paying a fee without even realizing it.

Go to:
Annualcreditreport.com
If you’re paranoid (which is not bad!) you can verify this is the correct site by starting at the Federal Trade Commission’s site.

It’s surprisingly painless- takes about 10 minutes.  Check your report from all three agencies- they will all be free.  It is possible that fraudulent accounts will show up only on one or two of them.

There are various schools of thought on how frequently these should be monitored ranging from quarterly to annually.  Each one of the credit reporting agencies offers a monitoring service that will notify you of any changes to your credit (new accounts, new addresses, etc).   These are useful and provide peace of mind, but they’ll run you about $120/year (prices may vary).

Shred your mail.

It’s not that bad.  Only shred pages that have an address, credit card offer, name or account number on them.  It’s incredible what a good thief can do with a name and address.

Be aware of where you disclose personal information.

If anyone ever emails or calls you asking for personal information, refuse.  Unless you initiated the transaction with a reputable contact, keep your personal information just that- personal.

If you suspect that you may be a victim of identity theft The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse has a list of actions to take.

There should only be one of you.  Leave the cloning to Dolly.

6 comments so far. Join The Discussion

  1. [email protected]

    wrote on August 11, 2009 at 1:24 pm

    Yikes! That is a horrible situation Alan. There was some man in St. Louis using my social security number to get food stamp benefits. You can never be too careful these days.

  2. [email protected]

    wrote on August 11, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Definitely can't be too careful… It's a very violating feeling to know someone else is out there impersonating you.

  3. benchsis

    wrote on August 14, 2009 at 2:50 am

    OY! I hate them. And I'm referring to the fraud investigators who claimed you were lying. They're real Sherlocks! Thanks for the follow up info though. Sorry you had to go through that!

  4. kfly

    wrote on November 18, 2009 at 8:33 pm

    While a credit monitoring service may run $120 a year, it's really a small price to pay for the peace of mind you get. I use one and I pay $10 a month. Even for me on a grad student budget I think it's worth it. It's kind of like insurance. You pay for it every month and if things work out for the best — you stay healthy, don't get in a car accident, don't find out you owe $120,00 for a Ferarri registered in Florida you never bought — you never use it but you're glad you have it. They really do alert you to any changes in your credit — including if a new line of credit is opened in your name, which tends to be the first signal that your identity is compromised.

  5. [email protected]

    wrote on November 19, 2009 at 2:32 am

    Trust me, go with the monitoring service. You can stay on top of it without the services, but what inevitably happens is that you get busy, it looks good for a year or two and then it drops off your radar. The service helps unload some stress so you can think clearly about experiments…

  6. dayman

    wrote on November 23, 2009 at 4:43 pm

    Eh, I view them as a bit of a scam, preying on people being scared of this happening to them. My technique maximizes the free reports – you can get one free report a year from each of the 3 reporting agencies.

    Every 4 months I check one of them, and I mark it on my calendar so I know how long it has been.

    However, I have never had to deal with any sort of fraud; when a drug dealers has my credit card it is because I gave it to them.

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