On December 24, 2004 the phone rang sometime after 9:00PM. My wife and I looked at one another with slight frowns because an incoming call for us at that hour is unusual. She answered and after a pause said, "Who's calling?...What's this regarding?...Please hold on a minute."
She covered the handset and whispered, "It's a collection agency for DirecTV."
With that phone call on Christmas Eve, while in full, festive holiday spirit, my personal identity theft hell began.
When I took the phone and accused the caller of harassing the wrong person, he confirmed my first, middle and last name, my social security number, and cited some other accurate info about me along with dire consequences if I didn't pay $256. The only thing he had wrong, aside from the entire debt, was my address -off by about 12 miles.
I hung up, jumped onto the computer and with sweaty, nervous, angry fingers I pounded Google in the most intense web searching frenzy I've ever had. (Well, except when the blue plus sign of my wife's pregnancy test wasn't clear.)
Sleep was out of the question. I was up into the wee hours of Christmas morning in my crash "self-help" course on ID theft recovery. Page after warm page of my free annual credit report (of which I had never taken advantage) slid out of my printer, sprinkled with sneaky lies that had me furious and sick to my stomach.
I soon discovered that I was fortunate; Less than ten accounts were opened with misspellings of my name -Jeffery, Geofry, Geffrey -and included a cell phone account in Ventura, bottled water delivery in Pasadena, a gas bill in south central L.A. Total damage was only a couple thousand bucks, but the damage to my credit score and my holiday cheer was devastating.
I added a fraud alert to my credit report, filed a police report and created a packet that, with a click of the mouse, I could print and mail to mistaken creditors. It contained copies of my driver's license, Social Security card, notarized affidavits and several current utility bills to prove my real address. I must have put in over sixty hours to mount a defense and three months to roll it out. Over a year later and my financial reputation is healed up.
One of the things that helped me relax after my nightmare was to hire a credit monitoring service (Note: Be careful to select a legitimate one. See fightidentitytheft.com for help).
Monitoring services will send an email when any credit report activity is detected. Quick detection of unauthorized activity is the best way to limit damage to your score.
Many banks and other financial institutions now offer email alerts for account activities you can select. I went crazy and signed up for email alerts for all my bank, and credit accounts so an email tattles on any transaction 24/7.
You may call me extreme, but when the next slime ball messes with my credit card, bank account or credit report, I'll be reading it on my Blackberry in a few seconds.