Quick response softens identity theft impact, officials say
This is the third in a three-part series on identity theft.
A little more than two weeks ago, hotel and restaurant management senior Hali Freitus was the only one in charge of her identity.
But after one credible-looking e-mail requesting information, her credit report is flagged with a fraud alert, her Social Security number is closely monitored and she examines her online bank account every day.
"Basically, it’s a living nightmare. It’s a nightmare," she said.
The story is a familiar one to a growing number of victims of phishing scams, in which unsuspecting individuals receive e-mails that appear to be from reputable financial institutions requesting "identity confirmation" or other information, threatening card cancellation if the victim does not comply.
"I got an e-mail on a Monday afternoon. It had said it was from Bank of America. That’s who I bank with," Freitus said. "Not thinking anything of it, I enter my name, my address, my birth date, my Social Security number."
Believing she had saved her account from cancellation, Freitus didn’t notice a problem until two days later when she checked the account to make sure she had enough money to pay her electricity bill, and she discovered the account was $300 overdrawn, lost to a bank account somewhere in Romania.
"They took me for everything I had," she said.
Taking precautions against identity theft has become nearly impossible, UH Police Department officials said, but reacting quickly to a crime can help.
It’s easy for a waiter to steal a card number, a passerby to lift a single credit card from a purse or a thief to steal mail containing sensitive information, UHPD Lt. Derrick McClinton said.
Filing a police report as soon as possible goes a long way toward catching an identity thief and making sure victims aren’t liable for fraudulent charges and accounts, McClinton said.
"Make a police report so it’s documented," he said. "You come to me, make a police report, you’ll get a case number."
McClinton said victims should file a report as soon as they notice a problem – whether it be charges they don’t recognize or a stolen purse or wallet.
"Just report it as soon as possible," he said.
Freitus notified her bank, the three credit reporting agencies, a Social Security office and the Houston Police Department of the identity theft, and the stolen money from her account was temporarily reinstated by Bank of America within 24 hours.
She also kept records of every step in the process.
"That’s the biggest thing, to have documentation," she said.
Many financial institutions won’t consider reimbursing victims of identity theft unless a police report has been filed, according to the Federal Trade Commission.
Cpl. David Miller handles many of UHPD’s credit card fraud investigations and estimates the department’s success rate is about 50 percent.
"The most important thing is time. We’ve got to get it as soon as we can," he said.
Once UHPD has a record of an illegal purchase, they can trace it back to the store, even the cash register, at which it was made, he said.
Although more stores are utilizing video security systems, Miller said, most delete old videos between two weeks and 60 days after they’re made. If a victim waits too long to report a crime, the window of opportunity to identify the thief is gone.
Victims of credit card fraud and other identity thefts have the option of pressing charges if the suspect is found. McClinton said doing so can deter that suspect from committing the crime again.
UHPD also works to assist victims of identity theft in whatever way possible, McClinton said.
"A lot of people don’t know where to go to – we want to help you as much as possible," he said.
Legal adviser Marilyn Golub with Student Legal Services said victims should also inform their financial institutions as soon as possible if they discover their personal information has been stolen or abused.
"The first thing to do is to contact the creditor, financial institution, etc. that was presented with the fraudulent information," she said.
The three credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian and TransUnion, each offers one free credit report annually, available at www.annualcreditreport.com.