Tuesday, July 24, 2012

10 ways to protect yourself
from identity theft and bank fraud


I never thought I'd be writing about identity theft.  It's an interesting topic, but I never thought I'd actually be the victim of it.  I'm not naive. I'm careful.  No worries, right?

Wrong.

I won't say that these thieves are smart, because I believe that being "smart" includes an understanding of right and wrong apparently lacking in the criminal mind.  But they are certainly clever, and you need to know the kinds of things they do.

Careful analysis of what happened to me indicates that somehow the thieves got a copy of an old check of mine--one that had been written and cashed. The thieves had my name, address, bank account number, driver's license number, and signature.  They didn't have a blank check of mine, but they didn't need it.  Here's what happened.

They somehow obtained a blank check from an unknown person.  I'm guessing that this person closed her bank account and threw away her old checks.

The thief used my personal information and bought or made a fake driver's license--a license with my name, my address, my North Carolina license number--but not my photo.  Instead, the fake I.D. included a photo of the person who was using my identity.

Armed with a fake I.D., my bank account number, and a blank check, the thief wrote out a check to my name.  Here's a copy of the check (with identifying information obscured):















The thief then walked into a Suntrust bank in Jacksonville, Florida and presented this check to be cashed.  The friendly teller asked to see her I.D.  She produced the fake license and the teller noted the information on the front of the check.  Then the teller asked, "Do you have an account with us?"

This is an important question.  Banks no longer cash checks for just anyone; a customer usually needs to have an account at the bank in order to cash a check.  Tellers are required to note the customer's account number on the back of the check.  This is to provide a guaranty for the funds being distributed.  If the check being cashed were not to clear for any reason, the funds would then be taken from the customer's bank account, the number of which was carefully noted on the back of the check.

This is part of the forgery of my signature from the back of the check.  Spooky to see a forgery of your own signature.

Imagine that Jane Doe wrote you a check for $100.00 which you want to cash.  You take the check to your bank.  Before the teller will give you $100 cash in exchange for Jane's check, he or she will ask for your account number.  The teller will pull up your account information and make sure that funds are available in your account.  If Jane Doe's check bounces for any reason, your bank will take the $100 from your account.  This is, of course, very smart practice for the bank.  If they're giving out cash, they need to be sure that there's a legitimate source of that cash.

You can imagine what happened in my case.  The thief received $2380.00 in cash at the teller window.  The check was bogus.  The thief knew the check would not clear, and she knew that my bank would automatically take the cash from my account--the one noted on the back of the check by the teller.  This shows that the thieves are clever.  They understand the banking system well enough to know how it works.  It's a tricky kind of theft.

The events of my story took a definite turn for the better when the thief attempted to steal more than once.  She went to another Suntrust branch in Jacksonville and attempted to cash another check using the same procedure she'd just employed.  But this time she encountered a teller with a lot of experience.  Something about the thief made the teller suspicious--just suspicious enough that she asked the thief a security question (in this case, my mother's maiden name).  The thief couldn't answer the security question, of course, and the teller calmly informed her that she couldn't cash the check.  The thief quickly left the premises.

Then, God bless her, that teller immediately called me.  When I answered the phone, she identified herself and then asked, "Are you in Jacksonville, Florida right now?"  "No," I answered, mystified.  "Have you been in Jacksonville in the past day?" she persisted. "No; I've never been to Jacksonville," I replied.  From there she sprang into action.  She told me what had happened; she called my local bank to get them involved in the case; she called Suntrust's Fraud Department; and she reviewed the security camera images to capture a photo of the thief.

Because of the quick thinking and conscientious action of that teller, we were able to move fairly quickly.  All my bank accounts were immediately placed on security alerts, signalling tellers that they should ask questions before cashing any checks.  We closed the bank account that had been breached.  This was no small feat, because it was my primary checking account.  I had to wait until everything had cleared my account before I could close it.  Quite a few monthly bills were set up to be paid automatically from this account; all those had to be changed.  You can imagine that all this took many hours of my time and quite a few hours of time on the part of several different Suntrust employees.  But the result was that the police in Jacksonville, Florida apprehended a suspect.  I signed an affidavit regarding the theft to assist the District Attorney there in pressing charges.  And Suntrust replaced the funds that were stolen from my account.

Will it end there?  I don't know.  Believe me, I'm on the lookout for other ways that the thieves might have used my personal information.  I've heard horror stories of a person's credit being ruined by thieves; I don't yet know if that will happen to me.  I'm hoping that these thieves were simply using my information for short-term theft purposes, but only time will tell.  Now that I've been documented as a victim of identity theft, though, I'll have recourse for recovery.  My next step is to order a credit check to see what might be going on.

Here are some things I learned from this experience; I hope they'll help you.

  1. Bank with a reputable company.  If you have any hesitation about the customer service you're receiving, switch banks.  If possible, bank at the same branch regularly.  (By the way, I have no affiliation with Suntrust Bank except as a customer.  But I've been impressed with their customer service.)
  2. Keep close tabs on your accounts.  If you spot any suspicious activity, question it immediately.  
  3. Be careful with paper checks.  Don't place mail containing checks in your curbside mailbox; drop it in a locked mailbox at the post office or an authorized station.  Be sure that all checks you write clear your account in a timely manner.  Keep a careful list of all checks you write (or use checks that create duplicates).  If a check doesn't clear, follow up with the recipient. 
  4. Shred all papers with any kind of identifying information.  Your name and address are easy to find, but you should make it as difficult as possible for a thief to obtain other information about you, particularly account numbers.  And destroy old checks and deposit slips, even if they represent accounts that are closed.  No doubt the person whose check was used in this scam thought there was no need to shred old checks since the account was closed, but clever thieves found a use for them.
  5. Never share sensitive information such as account numbers with anyone unless you're absolutely certain about their identity.  For instance, don't give an account number to someone who calls you.  Request verifying information until you're satisfied that you're speaking with a legitimate representative.  Or call the company's published phone number and follow the prompts to speak with an account representative.
  6. Be careful about where and how you enter account information.  We're often on the go, and it can be tempting to pay bills via cell phone while out in public.  Don't do it.  Better to use your home phone and/or home computer when transmitting sensitive data.
  7. Never send sensitive information like account numbers via email.  
  8. For online transactions, be sure that you enter sensitive information only on a secure site.  Look for a web address that begins with https://, not just http://.  That "s" is important; it stands for "secure."
  9. Be careful with account passwords.  It's tempting to use the same, easy-to-remember password for all your accounts, but that's not a good idea.  If one of your accounts should get hacked, you don't want the thief to have easy access to all your accounts.
  10. Don't complain about security measures.  Believe me, you'll be grateful they're in place if you're ever the victim of theft.

Have you ever been the victim of theft?  Or do you have any tips to share?  I'd love to hear them!


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25 comments:

Paula said...

I am so sorry that this happened to you but am glad that the helpful teller acted quickly before this person stole from you more than one time. It's got to make your blood boil thinking about how bad this could have been. Thanks for the tips to keep safe. I will definitely follow them.

Anonymous said...

WOW! Thanks for sharing your story. Everyone should read it. I found it on Home Stories of A to Z link party. Renea.

Heather said...

I'm so sorry that this happened to you. It is really scary to think about. Thank you for sharing these helpful suggestions. I'm so glad that the SunTrust teller in FL was so quick on the draw!

Kathy Olson said...

I am so sorry this happened, but I learned a lot from reading it. I will be keeping this in mind from now on.

Kim @ Savvy Southern Style said...

Oh, so sorry that happened to you. My husband is a banker and these things happen pretty frequently. The tellers at my husband's bank have stopped several scam artists.

upcdaze said...

Very sorry this happened to you. A few years back my purse was stolen with my "life" in it. For some unknown reason, I had my social security card in the billfold along with every other card, etc. Checkbook was in there also. My debit card was used for gas and the spree continued until I could cancel all cards and get with my credit union. Fortunately, I was able to stop the thieves before too much damage could be done; however, the stores had to be called, forms had to be filled out, etc. It was right before Thanksgiving and I had to spend hours trying to get everything in order. After that happened, I received this tip. :) First of all, never carry your social security card in your purse! Then, make a copy of all the cards, driver's license, etc. front and back and keep a copy in a secure location. That way you can just go down the list, make calls, etc. Hopefully, this will never happen to you or anyone else reading this. I keep close tabs on my purse now! Hope this helps someone and thanks for letting me share. PS I do check with the credit report companies on occasion, because my purse or the culprit was never found.

Becky L. said...

I had is happen in Feb '10. It really stinks! Similar to your story, it was discovered by a very diligent teller. I also agree w/your thought on being smart is also knowing right from wrong and choosing the right (honesty). Thanks for this great article. Happy Tuesday :)

Amanda @ Serenity Now said...

Oh, Richella, how scary!! I'm so glad they caught that awful person, and I hope she is prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.

Kathy@ Gone North said...

Oh, so sorry Richella
I had an attempt @ identity theft once, a long time ago.
I used to sell on Ebay & somehow, the thief got into my account, was able to make a $13,000 automobile sale & Ebay caught it. Ofcourse I had no car for sale & if not caught on time when no car was recieved on the other end, my bank account would have been debited for that amount.. it was a hassle to change things at the bank & all of that...
Thieves are tricky these days
Here's hoping that this is the end of it for you
Thanks for sharing...a good reminder to all be more cautious

Linda said...

Richella I am so sorry that this happened to you. I think it is everyone's worst nightmare.

Shelia said...

I'm so sorry all of this has happened to you, Richella! We've had some identity theft happen to us from whom we thought were friends. My husband's driver's license number and social security numbers were stolen from some records at our church! Can you believe it? Then some pricey things happened. My husband has an a one credit and was working to find out his credit score like you see on TV. There was a very large amount due to somewhere he had no idea what it was. He persisted until he finally found out our so called friends had used his identity to open an account in his name. Now they were making payments but still. He did all the things you do when you find out you've been violated but got this cleared. He had a certain amount of time to either turn them over for theft or let it be. He's a better Christian than me because he talked with them and said I want my credit cleared of this. Someone they got the money and paid off the debt. He did nothing else. It was over $10,000 and needless to say, I was just furious.
Be a sweetie,
Shelia ;)

Living Life in the Lowcountry said...

Wow! So glad that teller thought to make that call!
Just yesterday my bank called and asked if I had made an online payment to some company for $277. I had not and the bank immediately cancelled my Visa debit card. It's a pain that I have to go get another card now, but would rather do that than have some crook clean out my account!
Those are some great tips!

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Terri at Finder's Keeper's said...

Thank you for taking the time to let us know how this happened. Our grandparents would surely be surprise we have to worry about such things.

Carmen @ Life with Sprinkles on Top said...

UGH! What a pain! I'm glad the teller caught it.

NanaDiana said...

I am so sorry this happened to you, Richella. That is just awful. It is too bad there are so many crooks and thieves in the world. If they would spend as much time doing legitimate work as they do figuring out ways to cheat people they would be millionaires. xo Diana

Erin said...

Thanks, Richella, for sharing your story and for your wise tips. I'd encourage everyone to get a copy of your credit reports from each of the credit bureaus once a year (it's free) and review them carefully. Sometimes the bureaus just have erroneous information, but sometimes you can catch identity theft this way. Another tip I was taught many years ago is to make a copy of your passport, in addition to your license, credit cards and such, in the even that is stolen from you while you are abroad. You can take the copy to the local embassy and it is supposed to help move the process along. Don't know if that's true or not but it can't hurt.

Take care, my friend.

Blessings,

Erin

Nadir@StitchSense said...

Oh my Richella! I'm so glad this was caught so early & that the thief was caught also. I've never had theft through my bank account but I did have someone hack an old ebay account I had. They were listing items under my name & charging the card I had on file for the listing fees & then collecting the money & not sending the products listed. It was a mess but taken care of fairly quickly, for that I was grateful. :-) Thanks for sharing!

Kelli W said...

Oh Richella that is terrible! I'm so glad that they caught on quickly and got things straightened out for you. We started shredding all of our stuff a few years ago.

Laura@HappyCanadianHome.com said...

What a massive headache for you - you've reminded me to change all of my passwords for security's sake. Hope it all works out for you!

melissa * 320 Sycamore said...

Oh Richella! What a nightmare! So glad they caught the person. Thank you for the great reminders and tips! Our credit card got stolen in disneyland and then they went and spent $50 at mcdonalds. Uggghhh. Your trip looked amazing, so glad you're back though. Only 2 more weeks for us before the kids head back! Xoxo

melissa * 320 Sycamore said...

Oh Richella! What a nightmare! So glad they caught the person. Thank you for the great reminders and tips! Our credit card got stolen in disneyland and then they went and spent $50 at mcdonalds. Uggghhh. Your trip looked amazing, so glad you're back though. Only 2 more weeks for us before the kids head back! Xoxo

Erin @ Two Story Cottage said...

Yikes! And thanks for the reminder to keep a close eye on our bank accounts. Glad the crook was reprimanded.

I had my identity stolen almost 10 years ago. It was a similar scenario. I bought a magazine thinking I was helping a hard-working teen earn some money. Turns out he was a crook - got my account number and did the same thing that happened to you. It was all straightened out but it made me a lot more wary. Sigh.

Shelly W. said...

Oh my word! I go out of town and your life falls apart! Just kidding, of course, but this is really disturbing. I'm so sorry this happened to you, Richella. Great tips, though.

Suhas Joshua said...

Check Fraud may not look like a problem at first, because you have shut the account down. The problem is that even though you have done everything correctly, you still can become a victim. This is because the thief can wait to use the stolen checks or create new counterfeit checks and put your information on those them. You must take the time to check periodically with the check verification companies to see if they are holding any checks with your information.
order bank checks

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