Identity Theft: From Victim to VictorMari Frank Tells Her Story of Catching an ID Thief
Read her personal story to see how she discovered the crime against her, ways she fought back, advice for consumers, and how she's become a nationally-known leader in the battle against Identity Theft.
TOM FIELD: Mari, in your experience, what's the single most misunderstood aspect of identity theft?
FRANK: Well you know there's so much news about identity theft that people think that if they get their credit reports they are going to know if they are victims of identity theft, and the credit reports only tell you about certain types of financial identity theft.
In other words, if you have a collection account on there that is not yours that will appear, or accounts that you haven't opened or loans that you haven't gotten or mortgages. But it won't show you many other things such as identity theft when someone steals your own personal identity to commit crimes, or to get life insurance in your name, or health insurance or health care, or worker's comp or disability, or get a job in your name, or commit, you know, IRS fraud.
So, there are so many other types of identity theft, including cyber identity theft that will never appear on your credit report. So, when you see the ads that this will protect you from all forms of identity theft, it is just not true.
FIELD: Now Mari, you were once a victim. What happened, and how did you fight back?
FRANK: Well, you know, I was a victim of identity theft back in 1996 when people didn't even know what that was. A woman who I didn't know who had seen my name in the legal newspaper for the State of California decided that since I'm an attorney and I'm active in the Bar that perhaps I would have good credit.
So, she was working as a contract secretary in a law office four hours away from my own office, just seeing that newspaper article she was able to download my Equifax credit report and from that see my name, my former name, my Social Security number, all the cards that I had, all the loans and whatever, mortgages, and she was able to assume my identity and get new cards and new loans that had nothing to do with mine.
So, I wouldn't know about it because my mortgage statement was coming and my credit cards were coming in the mail so everything looked great to me until about 11 months after she started, when I got a call from a company I never heard of asking me why I had not paid my $11,000 dollar bill.
FRANK: So, that was a big shock. I ended up finding out that she had gotten over $50,000 dollars in my name. She was parading as an attorney using my profession, and that would not obviously show up on my credit report. And I did--I was able to track her down, and by the way only about 10% of victims of identity theft ever even find out who their imposter was. Anyway, from that I saw that there were no laws that were protecting me, and in fact my own law enforcement agency in Orange County, California, wouldn't take a police report because under the law I was not a victim. It was the credit card company.
So, I went over to the California legislature and helped write laws that made identity theft a crime. And then I ended up testifying in Congress on many bills that make identity theft a crime and to hold creditors accountable and law enforcement, and I ended up speaking at the White House and writing a bit. And then from that I ended up on a lot of television programs, and I was trying to educate the public about what they need to do to protect themselves and what companies need to do to protect their customers and clients. And so that's how I ended up fighting back.
I became an expert by necessity and continue to help victims and have books and a website at www.identitytheft.org, lots of things. I have a radio show that talks about privacy issues, so basically this victimization turned me into a victor. That's why I named one of my books from Victim to Victor, because even if you are victimized you should not have to stay a victim. You can be victorious if you take some control over your life.
FIELD: Now Mari, how long did it take to fight your battle, and what ultimately became of the woman that seized your identity?
FRANK: Good question. Well, it took me over 500 hours. In those years there were no steps to take. There weren't laws that set up certain parameters for how, you know, you should help a victim if you are a company. So it took me over 500 hours, and you can hear how shy I am, you know, I am an attorney, I write letters, and I do that for a living. And so if it took me that long you can imagine how long it was taking, you know, people who didn't have the kind of training that I had.
What happened to her ... well, I was able to find her, believe it or not, by going back and demanding certain documentation and finding out where her credit cards were being sent. They were being sent to an apartment that she was living in four hours from my home. When we did find her, then I had to get law enforcement to help me. And when I called the Ventura Police, which is in the city that she was living, the only reason I got help is because the Watch Commander himself was a victim, believe it or not.
FIELD: Oh wow.
FRANK: So, anyway, she ended up getting a two-month work furlough program, still driving the red convertible that she had purchased using my name.
So, that's when we said we had to have some, you know, some more kinds of punishment or something to keep these people off the street.
A great many of these imposters are dealing with drugs. She was a methamphetamine addict. She was in her thirties. She was a single mom. Her ex-spouse was a cop. Her dad had been a sheriff. So, she had access to a gun as well -- they found her with a gun. So, there was some scary stuff that went on.
So, I tell people, you know, if you do find out who your victimizer is, don't get near them. Let law enforcement do it because she actually drove four hours to my home and stole my mail. And who knows what else she would have or could have done to break into my home and hurt my children. So, it was really pretty scary at the time.
And she got picked up again. And I understand that she did that two-month work furlough program. She got out of that and then she did it to some more people, and I think she ended up in jail in another state. That's my understanding.
FIELD: Now Mari, what are the key warning signs that people should look for regarding identity theft?
FRANK: That's a good question too. If, for example, you go and you want to buy a car and you think that your credit is, you know, 700 maybe your score, your credit score is 700 or high 600, and they tell you your score is so bad that you couldn't buy a dog. That's a very good example of what, you know, that you've got a problem here and you need to ask whoever is telling you that your credit is poor to give you a copy of that credit report right away. They may not want to, but you are entitled to it. That's one warning sign.
Another warning sign might be like what happened to me when I got a call from a company I didn't know. I thought it was a phony phone call. I was about to just hang up the phone, and I asked more questions. If you get any kind of call like that, then that is a warning that there is something else going on, and you better look into it.
If, for example, you start getting mail that is addressed to someone else at your address, that also is a warning sign. And if you go to get a job and they, you know, start to act funny, you know, and you've authorized a background check -- make sure you ask for a copy of that background check because you may find something has gone awry also with your background check.
So, there are many, many different ways that if anything looks odd to you with your bank account, with your credit card statements, those are all warning signs and you better, even if it is nothing or lets say there's a, you know, mixed file for example, you still need to address it.
Also, you should be able to get your credit reports for free at www.annualcreditreport.com. You are entitled to get one free credit report from each of the credit bureaus, Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion. And when you do that you can stagger it and do one every, you know, four months. When you do that, if you recognize anything that looks odd, that may be a red flag for you. So those are important to do. You get them for free.
Also, a lot of people don't know this but you are also, under the new Federal laws, entitled to get a background history, work history, for free. You can go to www.choicetrust.com to get that, and you can also get your insurance history to see if somebody is perhaps using your name and got into an accident or something like that, if there is some error. So you can get that for free as well. And also, www.choicetrust.com will give you a free report of public records. So, if there is something that someone got a license in your name or something like that it will appear on that.
So those are for free, and you should do that once a year. But those are some warning signs, and you have to be more active and affirmative about finding out about things because there was a recent study by several different companies finding that in the year 2006 there were between 8.9 and 15 million new victims of identity theft in the year 2006. So, we are talking about it happening to about one in five people.
FIELD: And the numbers aren't going down, clearly.
FRANK: It doesn't look like it. Although a recent Federal Trade Commission study seemed to show that it might be going down, but even their own, you know, and on my radio show I interviewed the head of the identity theft program, and even she, Joanne Crane, said that perhaps those numbers aren't correct. It could be much higher.
FIELD: Now Mari, if someone believes they have been victimized, where should they first turn?
FRANK: Well, the first thing that they should do, and most likely, the largest form of identity theft is the financial identity theft. The first thing that they should do is immediately get their credit reports, and they can get them for free if you are a victim of identity theft. They need to place a fraud alert on their credit reports saying don't issue credit without calling me first at this number and they should give a cell phone number. <
They also have a choice now, since November of 2007, they can put a security freeze on their credit report by writing to the credit reporting agencies and saying I don't want anyone, any new possible creditor, to get my credit report without me authorizing it, so I will give you a password. And that is if you are a victim of identity theft you can get that for free from each of the credit bureaus. So, that is a very important aspect.
Another thing that they should do is after they have done that; they should go and make a police report in their local jurisdiction. So, let's say you find out, Tom, that someone is using your identity in California. If you were to call the Orange County Sheriff, they wouldn't care about you because you live in the East Coast. So. always go to your own local jurisdiction, and that means the city you live in, and they may say well, look we can't even investigate because here you live, you know, on the East Coast, but your imposter is in the West Coast. So, you tell them, look, just at least give me an informational report. And the reason why is this, if you don't get a police report, no company will believe you.
FRANK: So it is very important that you get a police report, and by the way, the federal law says that you must have an identity theft report from some law enforcement agency. If you have problems with your own local law enforcement agencies, you can go to the Postal Inspector in your area and they are usually very good, believe it or not, because in order to commit fraud you have to be able to use the mail somehow. So, they are very, very good.
FIELD: Now I can imagine a bottom line question for a lot of people, is online commerce safe? And how do respond to that?
FRANK: Well, I'll tell you I use online commerce, but only with credit cards. I would never use something like PayPal unless it was with my credit card. I don't ever recommend using a debit card because a debit card can be used without a PIN on the internet and the money is immediately siphoned from your account.
And also, by the way, you are covered by the Electronic Funds Transfer Act, which is not a very strong consumer law. If you are going to use online commerce, which most people do now -- I do -- use a credit card, and that is the safest mode because if someone somehow uses it fraudulently, you will get your statement and you will have up to 60 days to dispute it and say, hey, I don't recognize this, this is fraud. Look at your statement, and you will not be responsible for a penny. Not a penny. So, it is the safest mode of shopping and even in the, you know, in the offline, when you go to the mall and you are shopping, during the holiday season or anytime, you must remember to use a credit card not a debit card.
Not even a check because a check is very, very dangerous. The routing number and the account number is right on your checking number, and someone can go to one of the office stores and make up new checks.
So, if you are going to do online or offline shopping you are safest with a credit card. Just remember to pay your bill every month and, you know, gauge yourself. Don't get crazy and overspend.
FIELD: That's good. Mari, if you had to boil it down to a single piece of advice to consumers regarding identity theft, what would that be?
FRANK: Well, my single piece of advice would be to be ever vigilant. And that means this: number one for yourself, there are certain things that you can do to protect yourself. Be stingy. Be very stingy with your information. That is number one. And don't be stingy with your money for charities and for your synagogue or your church or whatever, but be very stingy with your information and ask why they want it.
And, when you deal with anyone who you do give your information to, ask them how are they going to protect it and why do they need that information, and don't give your Social Security number, by the way, which is the key to the kingdom of identity theft. Don't give your Social Security number out unless it is for a tax purpose, or if there is, you know, for example, if you need it for some governmental agency, such as the Department of Motor Vehicles, and ask them to protect it.
There is a lot you can do, a lot more. I even have a book called Safeguard Your Identity, and we have over 200 pages of really important things to do with little vignettes and stories of people who have come to me. So, I would just say don't give your information and protect your information and demand that every company and governmental agency you deal with protect your information as well.
FIELD: Mari, you have been insightful. I really appreciate your time and your comments today.
FRANK: Well thank you, and you protect yourself and go to www.identitytheft.org for a lot more information.
FIELD: Excellent. Mari Frank, thank you. And thank you for tuning in today. For Information Security Media Group I'm Tom Field. Thank you very much.