CHICOPEE, Mass. (WWLP) – What would you do if $153,000 vanished from your home equity line of credit, but you couldn’t prove that it wasn’t you, and the check had your name on it?
Identity theft is a real life waking nightmare, that affects millions of people every year. Last year, Robert from western Massachusetts became an identity theft statistic. “You start off by saying this can’t possibly be true, then you realize it is true, it is indeed a fake check for a large sum of money drawn on your account.”
Robert didn’t want to identify himself on camera, but contacted the 22News I-Team after an imposter stole his identity, then his money.
It all started in November, when he got an email from Charter thanking him for changing his security codes, codes that he knew he didn’t change. “Low and behold I found out later after this had happened about a half dozen times over the next several weeks, that they were systematically activating my account, forwarding my landline for purposes of stealing my identity.”
Robert didn’t realize his identity was stolen until he checked his banking statement, and discovered someone had cashed a $153,000 check with his name on it at a bank in Florida; a crime that local police couldn’t investigate, and the bank couldn’t immediately verify.
Milagros Johnson is the director of the Springfield Office of Consumer Information. “You are held responsible until you can prove that it’s not you.”
Johnson told the I-Team when it comes to identity theft, you’re guilty until proven innocent. “All of the work is on the victim, to prove their innocence, to prove their identity, to regain their name and their reputation back. No one can do it for them but themselves, and that’s very frustrating.”
For Robert, the most frustrating part was trying to secure his cable account. Every time he called to cancel it, his imposter would call to reinstate it.
Robert told the I-Team he doesn’t think Charter did enough to stop the mystery person from making changes to his account, even after he filed an identity theft claim. “I was told all they need is your name, your address, and the last 4-digits of your social security to make changes to your account. For the most part, just about everyone in the world has your name and address, and the last four digits of your social,” he said.
Despite identity theft hitting an all time high in recent years, Johnson told the I-Team a majority of companies still only ask for those three pieces of information. “Why it hasn’t changed, I have no idea, but I think it’s time that that be changed.”
Robert said no matter how many times he called Charter, or how many people he spoke to including their fraud division, his account was still being hacked on a weekly, if not daily basis. “I couldn’t get it to stop, that was a very frustrating aspect.”
22News contacted Charter about Robert’s security concerns, and the difficulty he had cancelling his landline.
Charter spokesperson Andrew Russell sent the I-Team the following statement:
“We have extensive security procedures in place to protect customer accounts. But because we often find that consumers’ identities have been compromised via another source (as is the case here) it’s vital for people to protect their personally identifiable information like SSNs, account information payment methods, and passwords and PINs for all their business relationships. Our website contains several tips to protect against identity theft, how to navigate the web more carefully, how to avoid phishing schemes, and other security issues.”
We then asked Charter what information they require to make changes to an account, and told them that the consumer experts we spoke to warned against only asking for the last four digits of a social security number, account number, and address.
We received the following email back:
“Hi Tamara, we don’t have any additional comment beyond what I said below. We have extensive security procedures in place to protect customer accounts.”
Despite Robert’s struggles, his story does have somewhat of a happy ending. More than a month after his identity was stolen, Robert finally got the call he had been waiting for. The bank concluded their investigation, and determined he’s not responsible for the money taken from his account.
Robert now hopes his story will serve as a reminder that a few pieces of personal information is all it takes, to turn your life upside down. “Every little piece of information is used in a puzzle to create whole identities for large bank frauds. Before this, I probably wouldn’t have paid that much attention to it. Now, I’m looking through my spam filters, I’m looking through any sign that anyone is manipulating anything. Because it could be an insurance policy, it could be whatever. And a lot of people just don’t pay attention to that stuff, but I would like to say that they should, it could mean something is going on behind the scenes.”
Milagros Johnson told the I-Team, there are preventive steps you can take to avoid becoming an identity theft victim. “Always check your credit reports. It’s going to tell you so much information, if someone even attempted to open up a credit card it’s going to be in your credit report. If someone opens up a credit card it will be known to you, you’ll get a report about it. If you don’t receive mail, and you know for instance that on the 15th of every month you receive your credit card bill or bank statement, and now it’s the 21st and you haven’t received it, call the credit car company, perhaps someone made a change in address. When you receive your bank statements, your credit card statements, any piece of mail, open it, view it, make sure that all of those charges pertain to you. But checking your credit report it key.”
According to the Federal Trade Commission, there were 7,287 identity theft complaints in Massachusetts alone in 2016.