Summary: in this article, I will describe an identity theft scam that happened to me and tell you how you can guard against it. The bad news is that scam is simple for thieves to execute and could be very damaging to your credit, but the good news is that it’s also fairly easy for you to stop – if you just pay attention to a few simple things.
Today I discovered I was the victim of identity theft – well actually it was my wife who discovered it so big kudos to her (Thanks, Anne!). Identity theft is nothing new – odds are it’s already happened to you at least once and will probably happen again too. What was unique about this situation was both the scam itself (quite nefarious and potentially very effective) and the unexpected manner we discovered it (part lucky, part wise).
What’s the scam?
One of the main ways identity thieves make money is to fill out credit card applications in our names, get the cards, and then max them out – sticking us with the bill. Although it’s worked for years, the ‘problem’ (at least from the thieves’ POV) with this approach is that they have to get the credit card banks to send the cards to an address that is not ours – AKA they have to convince the credit card bank that we’ve moved or else want the card sent to a different address than the one on our credit report file. Over time, some (but not all) credit card companies have gotten a bit wise to this scam and so they’ve taken various precautions to make it a little harder for identity theft scams of this nature to succeed.
So what’s an identity theft thief to do when they wanna get a credit card in your name and go on a shopping spree? The answer may surprise you — instead of trying to get the credit cards sent to an address different than your primary address on the credit report, the thief will request the credit card be sent to your home address so it looks legit. This increases the odds of credit card approval dramatically – after all, (assuming you qualify for the card), why would the credit card company not approve you in this situation?
So how does the thief get the card if it’s sent to your real home address?
Here’s the beauty of this scam (again from the thief’s POV) — once they know the card is confirmed, they call the issuing bank and find out WHEN it’s being mailed out, then…
the identify thief will put a hold on your mail at the post office (anyone can do it online – it’s simple), then before YOU realize you haven’t received any mail, they waltz into the post office, pick up your mail, get the cards, and go shop till their heart’s content.
Boom – successful scam!
Meanwhile, after a few days of not getting any mail, you finally go to the post office and discover there was a hold on your mail that you didn’t authorize, but since you have no reason to suspect anything nefarious going on (because you don’t yet know about those credit cards which the thieves now possess), you chalk it up to a simple online mixup, remove the hold, and go back to life as normal. Sure you missed some mail, but unless you were expecting some important letter or package, you’ll likely not care about a few items of missing junk mail, right? As a result, you’ll move forward never knowing there was an identity theft scam that just happened to you — until you start getting those credit card bills!
“What do you mean I owe $3000 to Wells Fargo? $10,000 to Citi? $12,000 to some bank I never heard of? What gives?!”
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How did we discover this scam?
On the one hand we got lucky, on the other we were also on high alert. Here’s what happened.
A couple weeks ago I got some emails from Credit Karma that looked like this…
There were actually THREE emails related to three different banks! I logged on to Credit Karma, looked into the matter and realized I didn’t make any of these requests. Taking their advice I ordered a copy of my free annual credit report to check it — there I discovered that (thankfully) there didn’t appear to be any new credit cards that I didn’t recognize, but there were 3 ‘hard inquiries’ – what I didn’t realize at the time was that these hard inquiries likely meant that someone (who wasn’t me) was applying for credit in my name (since in most cases a hard inquiry is only generated when you request a potential creditor to review your file for a credit card or loan). That should have set off a red flag that caused me to take action immediately. It didn’t.
I did take Credit Karma’s advice and submit a dispute to the credit agency associated with the report (in this case Equifax) to get the items removed from my credit report. But at that point, I (foolishly) thought I was done – after all my credit score was still ‘Excellent’ and like I said I didn’t see any new credit cards or loans on my credit report that I didn’t recognize.
Little did I know there was more to the story…
Meanwhile, last week my wife was waiting for (yet another) package from Amazon. As Amazon Prime members we enjoy lots of benefits – one of these is the free 2-day shipping on most of the items we purchased through Amazon. Since we purchase 100’s of things from Amazon, we’re getting packages from them almost every day. Anne was notified by Amazon that a package was on the way but when they attempted to deliver it last Friday there was a problem. Now it just so happened that this package was sent via USPS instead of the normal UPS route and when Anne tried to reschedule the delivery with USPS online she was unable to do so (since we didn’t yet know that the identity theft thieves had put our mail on hold earlier that day). Anne figured she’d get her package in the normal USPS Saturday mail – but again no luck. So (thankfully) this week (on Monday morning) Anne decided to go to the post office because she really wanted that package — BTW here’s what she wanted so badly in that package… (#AmazonAD)
So when she visited the Post Office on Monday morning Anne discovered the mail hold. Although it was a minor annoyance, as of yet, we still didn’t realize there was an identity theft scam occurring. So Anne stopped the hold, retrieved her package and our ‘held’ mail from last Fri/Sat, and came home.
Later that day I opened the mail – that’s when I discovered 3 letters from Wells Fargo (1 of which included a new credit card that “I” ordered) and another from Citi explaining that ‘my application for their credit card was incomplete’ and inviting me to log on or call to complete it. When Anne told me about the hold and I saw this mail I immediately remembered the Credit Karma warnings from last week.
That’s when we (finally) realized we’d been scammed!
Had it not been for Anne’s Amazon package and her desire to get it vs keep waiting for the post office to deliver, it’s very likely that this scam would have worked. If she would have even waited 1 extra day to go to the post office, or even had she delayed till Monday afternoon vs the morning, the identity theft thieves could very well have gotten to the post office before her and picked up our mail (and gotten their hands on that credit card).
But now – not! Take that, credit card thieves!
BTW if don’t believe me that this scam is really happening, check out this story from NBC affiliate in California. Sound familiar?
How can you protect yourself
Here are a few specific action items you can do to protect your credit.
- Use a credit monitoring service like Credit Karma (Anne and I use this), Lifelock (my dad uses this), or another firm you trust – your bank might even have one free to use.
- Pay attention when you get alerts like the one I got about the hard inquiries.
- Take action – upon hindsight, I should have done more than just file the dispute about the hard inquiries on my report. Since they were hard inquiries I should have realized that these signified that someone was actively applying for credit in my name – I should have reported those as ‘fraud’ on my credit reports (instead of the “I don’t recognize these” option) AND I should have contacted those banks to advise them to cancel those cards because I didn’t order them.
- Put a ‘Lock” or “Freeze” on your credit reports so people can’t use your info without your permission.
- Keep yourself aware of what’s happening with scams. For example, here’s a recent article about Ransomware Facts and Trends.
- (Anne’s tip) Order more stuff from Amazon so you have a reason to pay attention to your mail and because it’s just fun to shop on Amazon! Heck I think I’ll do that again right now with this link…but don’t worry I won’t use that scam credit card!
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