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How identity theft and fraud upended one woman’s life

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Blank Social Security checks are run through a printer

The FTC has instructions on what to do if you've stopped receiving government benefits because of identity theft. Above, blank Social Security checks are run through a printer at the U.S. Treasury facility in Philadelphia. William Thomas Cain/Getty Images

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Cases of identity theft and fraud are on the rise. The Federal Trade Commission put out a press release earlier this year with data showing the agency received “2.8 million fraud reports from consumers in 2021.” The losses are also reported to be more than $5.8 billion

Jessica Roy is the assistant editor of Utility Journalism at The Los Angeles Times and wrote about her experience dealing with repeated instances of theft and fraudulent activity on her bank accounts. “Marketplace” host Kai Ryssdal spoke with Roy about her experience. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation. 

Kai Ryssdal: I suppose this is one where we kind of have to start at the beginning, you’re at a bar in San Francisco. And then what happens?

Jessica Roy: I went to pay at the end of the night, and I reached into my purse and my wallet was gone.

Ryssdal: So you being a conscientious person call the police. I imagine in the next couple of days, you report your license gone, all the rest of it. And then what happens?

Roy: Right, yeah, you know, I canceled my debit cards and got them replaced, got a new license, bought a new wallet, and I kind of thought that was the end of it. And a month and a half later, in January 2019, I started getting these huge envelopes in the mail with all this paperwork that were like, congratulations on your new Bank of America checking and savings account. Here’s your Wells Fargo checking and savings account following up on your application for a target credit card. And I use a credit monitoring service, and I got these emails that were like new inquiry, new inquiry, is this new card yours?

Ryssdal: So what did you do? I mean, when you’ve clearly had your identity stolen, which I imagined by this point, in this story, you have realized, what did you do?

Roy: I sprang into action right away, I went online, and I froze my credit with all three credit bureaus. I filed an FTC complaint on, I went to the FBI online criminal complaint center and filed an IC3 complaint. And I followed up with the San Francisco Police to get the report about the stolen wallet so that I had all of my paperwork in one place.

Ryssdal: Did it do you any good?

Roy: I guess no, I would find myself in the position many times over the following months and years where I had to mount a Supreme Court case, in my own defense. And so having all of this paperwork together, helped, but it didn’t stop them from what they had already done. They’d already gotten checkbooks and used my driver’s license to do a bunch of things like they stole a Tesla. They were in a car crash in a BMW that time and presented my driver’s license, they wrote a check for someone’s bail, and that person never showed up. And so a debt collector was reaching out to me quite frequently about that one.

Ryssdal: I should say here, let’s just take a brief sponsorship break and say you should read this story if you haven’t, because it is amazingly just and I’m quoting you here, Jessica, “Kafka-esque.” It’s just unbelievable. The thing that gets me is that it was you against the system and the system didn’t care.

Roy: No, not at all. I really felt in this experience, like I was victimized twice, like more victimized and many more times over by the banks, the credit bureaus, all these people, all these institutions that had accepted checks from them. And it was unbelievably emotionally difficult to go through. It’s so stressful, I didn’t think it would ever end. I had no idea how I would get out from under it.

Ryssdal: Alright, so let’s do a little utility journalism here. A little service journalism, if you could say one thing to the people listening to this, and who will have read your story about identity theft and solutions and things people can do? What would it be?

Roy: Proactively freeze your credit? It’s free. And it only took about 15 minutes, I was pretty shocked at how easy it was. And then when I was applying later on for a mortgage and a car loan, it was very easy to temporarily unfreeze and then refreeze it again.

Ryssdal: We should say here that in that moment that you unfreeze it, something else happened to you?

Roy: Yes, when we started applying for mortgages in summer of 2020, I was very upfront with our lender. I said, you know, I am a victim of identity theft, there’s going to be some weird stuff on my credit reports that I’m still trying to untangle. And you guys need to let me know the last possible second that I can unfreeze my credit and then you can check it and then call me back and I will rephrase it and even in the 24 hours, that I had to have it unfrozen, I got a text alert from one of my banks that was like, congratulations on your new checking account, click here to view how the process is going or something and I called them in tears. I said, what can I do to stop this? And the customer service rep goes, “Well, if we could stop all instances of fraud, we would but we can’t.” It’s like oh, okay, well, if it would be hard for you, you know, I hate to trouble you with my little tale of woe.

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