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I was walking to my dentist appointment. It was a sunny Friday afternoon in San Francisco with a quiet, happy breeze. I smiled to myself as I thought about my life. Nothing felt missing or needed mending. Yes, there were things I needed to work on but I felt content, grateful for the moment. Identity theft was the last thing on my mind.
At the dentist office, I was promptly shown to the exam room. A rather good-looking dental assistant greeted me. The usual chit-chat of “Ro-shaani, what a beautiful name. Where are you from?” followed.
And predictably, “Oh Nepal! You’re the first person I’ve ever met from Nepal.”
Then, I got a call that would change the course of my day completely. I reached for my cellphone.
How the scammer cornered me
A recorded voice announced, “this is a call from the United States Social Security Administration to inform you that we are filing a lawsuit against you.”
The call was then directed to a live person. He first confirmed my name and began reading my charges. He said that someone had used my social security number and other personal information to rent a car in Texas and commit crimes. They had recovered the abandoned car and it had traces of drugs and blood. I was being charged for possession and trafficking of illegal drugs and possible homicide.
My inner voice was telling me, this is just too crazy to be true. But then, again I had lost my social security card a year ago. I had looked everywhere but couldn’t find it. Maybe someone took it and rented a car in Texas to commit these awful crimes. My mind was racing imagining the crime scene – an empty car with doors flung open, full of drugs and blood stains on the seat covers. Oh my god! How would I fight this?
And, I was about to leave for an international trip the week after. Surely, they wouldn’t let me leave the country while I was being charged and there was an outstanding warrant with my name.
I had to fix it. Now!
The person on the phone asked me for my social security number and date of birth. Again, my inner voice protested but no, I just couldn’t deal with the cognitive dissonance. I did not have the time or energy to fight this, even though I knew I had no part in it. I wanted the situation to just end and it seemed the only way out was to cooperate with the person on the phone.
I gave him my personal information.
A few minutes later, the call ended. I googled “social security lawsuit” on my phone and sure enough, there was a bulletin on identity theft from the Federal Trade Commission to watch out for scam artists who call posing to be from the social security administration.
I had been scammed! And they had gotten what they wanted – all my personal information to potentially steal my identity.
By this time, the dentist had entered the room and after hearing what had just happened, advised me to immediately go to my bank down the street and ask them for steps to rectify the situation.
At the bank, the service agents listened to me with a concerned expression but were clueless as to what steps needed to be taken. So, over the next 24 hours, I did extensive research and took the following steps to protect my identity and assets. Even though I took these steps after a potential security breach, in retrospect, I should have taken them beforehand. If you’re reading this, I would urge you to take action now.
1. Freeze your credit or issue a fraud alert
If you suspect your information to have been exposed or if you are a victim of identity theft, definitely freeze your credit with all three credit reporting agencies: Equifax, Experian and Transunion. Placing a credit freeze will shut down access to your credit report to any new inquirer. If you need to apply for a card or a loan, you can always unfreeze your credit temporarily for verification purpose. I froze my credit and also temporarily unfroze it to apply for a credit card. It was a very easy process. If you don’t freeze your credit, at least consider placing a fraud alert with all three agencies. Having a fraud alert means that businesses will need to verify your identity before issuing you credit.
2. Sign up for identity theft protection
Many employers nowadays offer a credit monitoring and identity theft protection service to employees. If yours doesn’t, consider using LifeLock. In reality, with the prominence of eCommerce and online transactions, it is much easier to steal your personal information and there’s no limit as to how criminals can use it. Children are especially vulnerable to this because they have a clean credit that is easier to impersonate.
Scammers can use your social security number to get jobs, claim benefits, use for medical bills, commit crimes and even sell it on the dark web where your information can be used for nefarious purposes. Additionally, they can request address changes with the post office to re-direct your mail so that you’re kept in the dark. So, signing up to monitor your identity is a wise investment. They will not only help you recover your identity in the event of a theft but may also compensate you for losses. If you sign up for LifeLock using this link, you can get up to a 25% discount.
3. Get your credit report
If you don’t sign up for a credit protection service, at the very least, get your free credit report with annualcreditreport.com. You can get a report from each of the three credit agencies every four months so that you get a quarterly report for free.
4. Check the locks
Review the security of all your bank and investment accounts to prevent any financial identity theft. If a scammer has access to your social security and date of birth, they can easily reset your password and gain access to your accounts. So, make sure you at least have a two-factor authentication on all your accounts, where the bank sends you a text or a phone call to confirm your identity. Also, understand the process by which your bank transfers money out of your account and if possible, keep transfers limited to a small checking account and freeze transfers out of larger accounts. Some financial firms will provide you an app that issues a temporary PIN every time you log in. Consider taking advantage of this service.
5. Get organized
One of the services that my high net worth clients appreciated the most was my helping them organize their finances to get a complete picture – assets, liabilities, income and expenses in one page. However, this is a useful service not just for those with lots of money but anyone of us who have changed jobs a few times or have accounts in a couple of banks.
I have accounts with nine different firms including 401(K)s, bank accounts, credit card accounts and home loan. After the data breach happened, I would log into each account for the next several weeks to make sure there was no unusual activity. But, an easier way to do this is to use a service that aggregates and organizes it for you. There are many such services available and one that I use and like is Personal Capital. They offer the service for free, including many other awesome financial tools. In less than ten minutes, I was able to get all my accounts uploaded into their system and get a complete financial picture, including an estimate of my net worth, comprehensive cashflows and income and expenses and an overall investment performance across all accounts.
6. Protect yourself from tax identity theft
One of the most common ways in which scammers may use your social security is to file taxes as you and claim a huge refund. To prevent this tax identity theft from happening, register to get a six-digit PIN from the IRS here . This will ensure that no one else is able to use your social security number to file taxes. You will need the PIN to file your taxes.
7. Clean the clutter
Even though the credit card offers you get by mail may seem benign, if a scammer has access to your mail, they can even go as far as applying for credit cards in your name. So, opt out of credit offers online or by phone at 1-888-5-OPT-OUT (1-888-567-8688). Do this especially if you are traveling or live in a place where your mail is not secure.
8. Check your mail
Snail mail or USPS mail is still how a lot of institutions communicate with the public. For example, all communication from the IRS comes via USPS mail. They will never call you. If you’re traveling for an extended period of time, use a mail collecting service to make sure you don’t miss any important correspondence. I use Traveling Mailbox. They scan and send my mails electronically so that I can keep track of my mail when I travel for extended periods of time.
The bigger lesson
One of the biggest lessons I learned from my experience is to listen to my inner voice. What is the inner voice? It is our repository of memory and experiences. We might have had certain experiences in the past or learned lessons that we might not remember completely but the gist of it sits somewhere in our gut and we get a feeling that something is not right because something like this has happened before and it did not end well. Sometimes, we mistake fear for our inner voice and this prevents us from taking risks. It is imperative to take risks if we are to live the life we want.
The only way to know is to take some time and examine the situation independently, without giving in to any external pressure or coercion. Remember that even in the direst of situations, you are never powerless. You always have the power to remove yourself from the situation or to say no. Take stock of yourself and your gut feeling. Use your power to leave a situation that you don’t feel comfortable in and take the time to re-assess. Had I done this, I would have just told the scammer that I would call them back and a simple Google search would have revealed the truth.
DISCLAIMER: This site exists to thought provoke and learn from the community. Your decisions are yours alone and we are in no way responsible for your actions. Please think long and hard before taking and financial decisions. Please be advised that nothing on this site constitutes tax advice.