public service announcement

Something really annoying, and potentially frightening, has begun happening to me. It’s caused me to do a major amount of research, while I lose sleep waiting to find out if my life is about to be thrown into unwarranted turmoil or not.

And I’ve debated whether or not to even talk about this, but I realized a lot of the information I was researching might not be as well known to others, and perhaps – just maybe – someone out there could benefit from this. So, throwing aside any potential humiliation and in an effort to purge some of this anger that has been keeping me up at night and has kept me from writing for the last few days, I shall tell you my tale.

First I should preface this with a reiteration of this one fact: I have no debt.

I know that sounds odd in this day and age. Everyone uses credit cards, right? Everyone has store accounts and charges things, right?

Wrong. I don’t. I used to, just like everyone else, but then – – about two years ago – – I stopped. I closed my accounts, I paid my entire debt load, I wiped clean any and all bills and balances. What I did, along with my sister who also owns the house we live in, was get a Home Equity Loan. These are different than Home Equity Lines of Credit – which is just a fancy credit application that allows you to go further into debt. A Home Equity loan is a lump sum payment based on the equity you’ve built up in your home, typically and in our case applied to the paying off of all debt.

So, when I say I paid off all my credit cards and closed all my accounts, what I mean is the bank did that for me. They researched my credit, found every debt I had, every account open in my name, (as well as my sister’s) and after verifying they were all legit, the bank paid the balances and closed all the accounts.

My sister and I have been living happily debt free for just about 2 years now. We have the Mortgage, car payments, and the Home Equity Loan, all through our credit union. The only other bills we have to our names are utilities, like the satellite TV, the cable internet, the water/sewer, natural gas, electricity . . . no lines of credit.

I don’t owe anyone money. And, because it was the smart thing to do, I registered our home phone number with the Federal Do-Not-Call registry.

So last month, when I was finding calls on my answering machine with no message, I shrugged it off.

When I would occasionally get a call that started out with a recorded voice saying: Please hold, one of our operators will be with you shortly. I’d simply hang up, roll my eyes at the illegal telemarketing attempt, and put it out of my mind.

Then, a few weeks ago I answered the phone and a man with very poor enunciation asked for a Kristen W–. That’s not how you pronounce my name. And I’m only guessing on the spelling of what he’d just said. I said “Look, buddy, this number is registered on the Do Not Call list, and you’re not even able to pronounce my name, so clearly you’re not a company I do business with.” And as I was hanging up, this ass hole is laughing.

It bugged me. I was angry and frustrated for a few hours, because let’s be honest, phone calls are another way of letting people into your home, and this was the equivalent of having some jerk on your doorstep trying to put his foot in the door so you can’t close it.

A week later, another phone call. Another complete mispronouncing of my name. “Who’s calling?” he slurred it so I had no idea what company this was. “What do you want?” his reply “Are you Kristen W–?” “Who are you and what do you want?” (I wasn’t going to explain how he’s mispronouncing my name, and I wanted to know what he wanted so I could report the call) “I can only talk to Kristen W–”

I hung up.

For the next few weeks, I keep getting this call. The recording asks me to wait (this is a practice ruled illegal in my state) so I hang up. My answering machine shows a message, but there’s nothing there.

Last week, I answered. Same guy, mispronouncing my name. “Is Kristen W– there?” This time I said “This is the W– residence.” Then – and this is what started my full-on panic mode – he says “I need you to confirm the last four digits of your social security number.”

Yeah. Now I admit, I could have handled this differently. I should have handled this differently. But when he said that, my survival instincts kicked in, coupled with my natural suspicion, and fueled by all the scams, phishing and other crap we hear about on the news every day. So instead of handling it carefully and with a cool head, I freaked – he’s rattling off the last four digits of what may or may not have been my number, I couldn’t hear clearly for the rushing of blood in my ears, and in a panic I said “I don’t know who you are, and there’s no way in hell I’m telling you what my social security number is.”

And I hung up.

Then I panicked. Were they phishing? Is this a scam? Why do they keep calling if they’re just fishing? WAS that the last four digits of my SS#? And if so, how in the hell did they get it? And why are they mispronouncing my name?

With shaking hands, I began my investigation into credit reports and what my rights are. And in doing so, I learned that every citizen has the right to a free credit report from the three companies involved in credit reporting, once every 12 months. This is a Federal Right, and only one company is legally authorized to provide this information to you.

They’re called the Annual Credit Reporting Agency, and they’re here: www.annualcreditreport.com

They have a form you can print out, fill out, and mail. Or you can request your free report online, or make a phone call. The three companies who tract and report your credit are:

Equifax

TransUnion

And

Exerpian

Now, if you go to each company’s web site, they’ll try to SELL you a credit report. And a service to monitor your credit. But I’ve learned from reading up at the FTC’s web site that this is a bad idea. They’re required to give you, once every 12 months, a free copy of your credit report. The FTC recommends you take advantage of this service every year, and either order all three at once, because they can differ somewhat, or order one from each company every 4 months or so, to keep a closer eye.

I know for a fact that, two years ago, there was nothing wrong on my report – the bank checked it. But in between then and now . . . I’m starting to worry. Someone out there has bastardized my name, used my SS# and done God knows what to my credit report.

That’s my fear, anyway. So I sent away for my report, from the first company, with the intention of checking the other two later this year. I did this via snail mail because now, with whatever this is happening, I’m too afraid to fill out an online form using personal information including my SS# and involving my credit.

Oh, one more addendum – I use extremely tight security on my PC. I have anti spy ware, anti virus, and privacy software. I use ZoneAlarm Pro, not the free version either. My laptop is friggin’ Fort Knox.

And while my sister keeps telling me to remain calm, that they’re most likely confusing me with someone else, and there’s probably nothing I need to worry about – and to at least calm down until I get that credit report back in the mail – I can’t sleep.

Last night was a zinger. I get the phone call again, this time a woman, who’s asking for Kristen X. W–. That’s NOT my middle initial, and again she’s mispronouncing my name. I asked who she was, she gave me some company name I’ve never heard of. I asked what this is about, she said she’s not going to tell me anything until she can confirm I am Kristen X. W–, and by doing that, I must confirm to her my correct social security number. I said there was no way in hell she was getting that information. She said she would call back when MR. W– was available.

I started to tell her there IS no MR anyone at this number, but she had hung up.

So last night, since I wasn’t sleeping, I began investigating my rights under the law – what to do if and when I find incorrect information on my credit report (it should arrive by the end of next week). And what I’m expected to do if I suspect I’m the victim of Identity Theft.

Lemme tell ya . . . it ain’t good news.

First, if you feel you’re the victim of Identity Theft, there’s squat the police can do. They’ll file a report, and that’s it.

Second, if you find incorrect information on your credit report, you’re fucked. Sure, the FTC has a form you can fill out, but they don’t investigate or fight for you. They simply log the data in a big database. They have a form letter you fill out, then YOU mail that to the credit reporting agency, telling them what charges you’re disputing, and THEY decide if they think you’re telling the truth. If they feel you’re lying, based on God knows what, they’re not required to do anything. If they feel you’re telling the truth, they’re not required to do anything OTHER THAN put a little note in your file that you’ve disputed the report.

That’s f-ing it. Your credit is fucked, you’ve filed all the reports and made all the proper claims, and they get filed and documented, and you’re fucked.

They put it on YOU to contact all the people involved, and they put it on YOU to prove you’re not the Joe Schmoe thief who stole your name and SS# and charged up a flat screen TV then failed to pay for it.

I’m losing sleep, and I don’t even know if I’m affected yet. I have to wait for the credit report to come – and no, I’m still too nervous to get it online using their web form. And I know when it comes, I’ll be too scared to even look at it. I’ll hand it to my sister and leave the house, have a good cry, get hammered, then come home scared to death and wait for her to tell me it’s okay or not.

Realizing I could be the victim of Identity Theft, or Credit Fraud, is bad enough. Having this – what I presume must be a collection agency – calling me every day when I have NO debt and owe no one any money, is raising my blood pressure. Being unable to make them stop unless I’ll give them my full name and social security number has me screaming mad.

Finding out that if I’ve been victimized, if my credit has been messed up and someone is using my name and number, then I’m completely and utterly fucked – is keeping me up at night.

If you’re still reading this post, and you’re thinking this could never happen to you – I pray you’re right. I figured having no debt, having not one single credit card to my name, would keep this from happening to me, and I was wrong. So learn from this. Check your report at least once every 12 months. It’s free, it’s your right as a citizen, and it’ll give you a heads up before something gets out of hand. And keep in mind, if you become a victim of this crime . . . you’re fucked.

I’ll keep you posted.

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21 thoughts on “public service announcement

  1. Jesus…

    The only useful thing I can think of is, in my limited experience with debt collection agencies (which are only a half-step up from mafia enforcers), they aren’t picky about who picks up the phone and who they talk to about whatever debt they’re trying to clean up on. Not because they want other people to pay, but just to cause some chaos that leads to faster payment, I would imagine. And the way the debt collectors spoke to you sounds very peculiar. From what you’ve said, I strongly suspect it was psishing (phishing? I’m so out of date. How do you spell that?)

    The only perk about being poor and occasionally backsliding further into debt is that no one tries to scam my wife and I out of any money. One look clearly indicates that we have zero moneys. So this is what you get for being debt-free. 🙂

    How long ’till the credit report shows up and tells you what’s going on?

    (I hate credit scores. The silliest, most arbitrary system outside of insurance companies. It’s the stupidest thing…)

  2. I’d have to say, in my own strange way, that I agree with Pete. The ones who have the most to lose are usually the ones targeted. Not having debt and a clean credit record is like painting a giant bullseye on your finances. “Pick me! Pick me!”

    Whereas we’ve managed to ruin our own credit so much it would be like getting blood from a turnip to steal our identities.

    And I distrust the Credit Reporting Bureaus. They aren’t in it for us, they’re in it for their own self-interest and for business’ self-interest. If they were in it for us, it would be a lot easier to clean up mistakes and fraud.

  3. That’s scary, Kristine. I hope that it turns out well. Someone I work with has the same name as some debt beat who also lives in this area. She’s had trouble with credit reports, bills, etc. It’s awful that the government doesn’t pay more attention to these kinds of things. Makes me very shades of grumpy.

  4. Yes, color me shades of grumpy. The shades that keep one up at night! I hate the credit bureau/reporting scam too – I just can’t find any way around all of this. I’m certainly not going to become a credit risk JUST to protect myself. So obviously those of us with no debt and stellar credit have to arm ourselves and be ridiculously on-guard. Penalized for good behavior.

    I’ve tried very hard to become a Blank, to stay off the grid, slide under every watchdog radar there is. If that report comes back with some a-hole’s information on it, I’m probably going to explode. And I don’t mean that figuratively.

    And there’s no way in God’s Green Earth I’m telling some caller what my full name and SS# is !

  5. Perhaps it would worthwhile, for mental well-being and all that, to pay for one of the services that keeps track of your credit stuff and notifies you should anything hit your report.

    You can also put that block thing (can’t remember what they call it) which places a hold on your credit, and only someone who has a code you personally give out can access your report. You can use that if you’ve been a victim.

  6. I’ve been reading up on how to put a Fraud Alert on the credit report – which would force them to contact me if anyone tries to open any new account in my name. So I’ll jump on that if I find something amiss. But the FTC themselves warn against paying for a monthly service, stating lack of guarantees, lack of service and misuse.

    I’m thinking the Mafia might be well worth the trouble 😀

  7. Firstly, with a suspected problem on your report, I’d also pay the ten dollars or whatever one-time ripoff fee they charge each to get credit reports from the other two agancies ASAP rather than waiting four and eight months to get them. There may well be a problem on one that you don’t want to wait on to find out. Also, call the phone company and tell them you’re getting harrassing calls, maybe they can help. And get caller ID. I always wait for the ID to show up between the first and second rings, and never answer a number that shows up as “unavailable” or an 800/8xx number.

    There’s also some law, not sure exactly, but they’ve got to send you written proof of a debt within ten days of contacting you. Of course, since you didn’t give “your name and your ssn” they may say they didn’t contact you (you’re absolutely right not to give it out – I wouldn’t even say in this blog whether the caller got your middle initial right or not!). But from everything I’ve heard, these collectors don’t care about the law, and they get away with too much crap like this.

    There’s a lot of consumer info (and I think quite a a few trolls on the message boards, unfortunately the way the admins deal with it is by constantly saying “now please play nice”) at Clark Howard’s website: http://www.clarkhoward.com – people rag on him and sometimes he does get it wrong, but I think overall he’s pretty good. I’ve heard a lot of nightmare scenarios on his radio show (collectors may even call your NEIGHBORS pretending to be a friend of yours, and ask them to leave a message for you!). If you’ve done a lot on your own case and don’t get it resolved, you might call him/his Consumer Action Center and see what they tell you.

  8. That’s good advice, thank you, Ben. I should go x-out at least my last name on the blog posting. And I did that *69 and found it was an 888 number. I’m seriously considering adding caller ID to my line, since my phone supports the feature.

  9. I’m sure there is a good service or two out there. Considering what the FTC does to protect consumers in these situations, I’m inclined to take all their advice and flog them with it. It may just require massive searching to find that good service, or it may not exist. I haven’t really looked into it.

    I just have a hard time believing that the same entity that won’t help out a consumer in trouble gives out good advice to protect a consumer.

  10. (collectors may even call your NEIGHBORS pretending to be a friend of yours, and ask them to leave a message for you!

    This is what I was sort of talking about above: They wouldn’t be so quiet and subtle and unwilling to talk to other people (i.e., you, without knowing if you’re the person they want or not), because their best weapon is being big and loud and embarassing until you pay the debt and make them go away.

    Just a thought.

  11. The only thing I have going for me – aside from what had BETTER be my usual stellar credit report – is the fact that, once the shock wears off, I’m a pitbull.

    I’ve filed a complaint with the Do Not Call Registry.

    I’ve emailed the FTC with my issue, stating the facts.

    One thing that I have really going for me is an incredible, and God knows where I got it, ability to write VERY daming letters to the people who matter. I once wrote a scathing, lengthy, and amazingly well worded letter to the Insurance Commissioner of my state, when my sister’s health insurance refused to pay for her second surgery. The surgery that fixed the issues the first emergency surgery had to create to save her life.

    I take great pride in the fact that my letter won us a personal reply from the State of Washington, her insurance paid the bill in full and apologized, and my cousin (a paralegal) asked my permission for her boss to use that letter while addressing Congress re; the state of health care.

    So I’m hoping, once the shock and anger wear down a little, I can let that pitbull off her leash.

  12. Kristine, most likely they simply have you confused with someone because you have a common name. But if it turns out to be identity theft or a wrongly reported debt, email me. I’ve been to hell and back fighting Discover over a case of identity theft. And I won. Mastercard, Visa, and AmEx were easy and pleasant to clear things up with. I will never own a Discover card because of this and every time someone calls me to try and get me to sign up for one, they get an earful until they hang up.

  13. I was going to say it might be mistaken identity by a collections agency or some such, too — they don’t have a real number for the person they’re looking for, so they picked the closest name out of the phone book, something like that.

    If that’s the case, http://forums.delphiforums.com/nomoredebt has some very knowledgeable posters regarding how to get collectors off your back. They’ve put together some good resources, primarily for helping people get out of debt, but also useful for mistaken-identity situations.

    Hope you get it worked out soon!

  14. As an update, I just found the proper reporting page on the FCC’s website, to report phone calls from persons not given permission to call – and they had a nice long explaination form spot, so I was able to lay it all out, what they’re doing, how they have my name wrong, how they refuse to say anything and demand my SS # and also how they use a machine to call my phone.

    And yeah, there’s another “nothing there” message on my answering machine.

    Thankfully this form has some legal standing, once you fill out some stuff, and they consider it an official complaint to the Federal government.

  15. I am so sorry you are dealing with this and I sincerely hope that it turns out to be a case of mistaken identity or some kind of scam…its not in the same league but my son has been harassed recently by a never-ending stream of start-your-business-at-home callers, we think a former girlfriend signed him up as a prank..but we have received literally hundreds of calls.

    For a little information, you are only *required* to give your SSN to your employer and bank, anyone else that asks is not supposed to require it (despite what they may say). For more info check http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,1211586,00.html and for an example of obtaining Verizon cell service without using your SSN see http://www.time.com/time/business/article/0,8599,1690827,00.html

    So you should not have to reply with your SSN no matter what…although if it is a bank-instituted collection they may be legally allowed to require your SSN. Anyway, one thing to think about is a response such as ‘may I speak to a supervisor to provide alternate id once I have identified you as a legitimate caller’

  16. I was finally able to get a number using *69, then did a google search, and they’re some sort of collection agency out of the south somewhere – again, I have no debt. And like I told my sister – if someone out there thought I DID owe them money, I’d be getting late notices or bills or something in the mail, and I never have.

    I was reading this morning at the FTC that any legitimate collection agency is not going to have, let alone need, your SS # and they’re required by law to inform you of any debt via snail mail.

    I’m still hoping this is a case of wrong name, wrong phone number, and phishing – but I’ll be on these pins and needles until that credit report shows up. And I’ve found a few more avenues of reporting incorrect items, and ID theft. Including how you can file a police report and then have a freeze put on your credit that would force any agency wanting to extend you credit to phone you first, and that’s the only legal way to get OFF the list of “You’re approved for this credit card!” mailings. Which is disgusting.

  17. The only thing more disgusting then how credit works — getting good credit, credit cards, getting and getting rid of them, and all things credit — is insurance companies. Utter rot, all of ’em.

  18. Kristine, how frustrating!! I personally agree with Ben – I would order my credit reports online through the bureau’s websites themselves. I think it’s something like 8 bucks each, but you see them instantly and can print them out. (I get ours twice a year – once free and once I pay for, because I don’t think waiting a whole year is probably a great idea.) $24 for peace of mind – or knowledge of something amiss – is worth it to me. Waiting that long is a heart attack waiting to happen.

    One thing on the Do Not Call list – it doesn’t apply to anyone you have ever, ever, done business with, charities, or political calls. (that last one cheeses me off more than anything)

    Caller ID is worth Every. Single. Penny.

    Good luck, I hope you get it resolved quickly, and I hope it’s just a matter of them having the wrong name and your credit is secure and intact. 🙂

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