I lost the last of my innocence to a man named Carlos, a man I never met. No, it was not my sexual innocence that I mourn. With sex you receive pleasure—even if oh, so fleeting or the joy of a child nine months later, but what Carlos took from me was the innocence of believing that no one wished me harm. Even worse, I learned how much I helped Carlos (if that was his real name) hurt me.

Twenty-six years ago I never locked my car, my first-floor windows or guarded my credit card receipts; misplacing them was an inconvenience, only, if I needed to return something.

In those days my husband took care of all things financial as he had from the day we married, but the marriage was now ending; it was grow up time.  I needed to learn to manage my own financial affairs and in our society establishing a financial identity involves getting a credit card. There I was entering middle age and I did not have a credit card solely in my name.

Breathless with anticipation, I applied for my first credit card; I was speedily rejected. Rejected!!!

Investigating the rejection, I discovered that unbeknown to me, I had a checkered credit history. My file from the credit-reporting agency, TRW, declared and revealed that I owed thousands of dollars, that I had collection agencies hot on my trail and, finally, to my horror, I discovered I was a man named Carlos!

Twenty-six years ago I was one of the first victims of a newly emerging criminal enterprise—identity theft. A New York Times story published May 31, 2006, stated, “According to a Federal Trade Commission survey in 2003, about 10 million Americans — 1 in 30 — had their identities stolen in the previous year, with losses to the economy of $48 billion.”

I called the police who, while sympathetic, refused to help me because twenty-six years ago identity theft did not exist as a crime. TRW refused to consider that there were errors in their report. When I insisted there were huge mistakes, starting with my gender—for Heaven’s sake— the supervisor, with whom I was speaking, hung up on me. Moreover, not one department store, travel agency or jeweler would talk to me, except to call me a deadbeat and threaten me with legal action if I did not pay the money I owed.

The thief had changed my first name from Carole to Carlos, used my last name and my social security number. It took over seven years to clear my name. During that time I learned a great deal. Now I shred all documents, bills and correspondence that contain identifying information. Identity thieves are masters of the art of piercing together tiny pieces of information. A name, a phone number, an address, a social security number, a bank account number, a credit card account number—all valuable to the thief who wants to become you.

Today, I refuse to hand out personal information that is routinely requested by some businesses such as a phone number, a social security number, the name of a relative not living with me they can call. None of this information is necessary to conclude simple sales transactions. I overhear these questions being asked and answered casually at the checkout much too often. There are usually many people milling around the checkout. Most are probably innocent, but not all. If I were a thief, that is where I would be— listening and writing down, recording or memorizing the bits of golden data I hear to use later or to sell to some other thief.

Stop being so helpful!

How many times have we read in the newspapers that credit card companies, department stores and even the Veterans Administration admit to having valuable data about customers, clients and patients lost or stolen?

January 20, 2009, Heartland Payment Systems, “a major payment processing company, disclosed a data breach that could expose tens of millions of credit and debit cardholders to the risk of fraud.”  See the entire New York Times article written by Eric Dash and Brad Stone.

Credit Card Processor Says Some Data Was Stolen – NYTimes.com
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/21/technology/21breach.html?_r=1&scp=2&sq=Heartland Payment Systems&st=cse

Could your name and personal information be in the compromised data? Maybe. I do not know of any way to check; however, you can be vigilant. Check your statements carefully.

If you find a questionable item, make phone calls and to protect your rights follow up in writing, even if you are told it is not necessary. Be aware that a  phone call is not enough; this is clearly stated in the small print at the bottom of your statements.

Twenty-six years ago I was careless and stupid. I have grown up a lot since then and I was absolutely sure it could never again happen to me, but It did. This time, however, my experience was vastly different.  I spotted the discrepancy immediately. It was a four hundred dollar catalogue order for French lingerie, purchased by Carole Fragkowski and delivered to an address in Brooklyn New York.

Please note that I do not live in Brooklyn, NY and that my last name is not Fragkowski. The thief had, somehow, aquired the number and expiration date on my card, even though I had never lost the card.

I called the bank, the police  and all the credit reporting agencies; lastly, I followed up with letters. At the police station I demanded that the authorities rush over to Brooklyn and arrest the perpetrators. OK, I am still a little naïve. That dramatic senario taken out of a TV cops and robbers show never happened.

The next day the French lingerie company telephoned me and declared that this was just one more case of fraud, that I was innocent and that they had already dropped the matter; their insurance covered the loss. The cost of the losses, however, really is passed onto the customers, us. In this way we all pay for the thefts.

In the end, my credit history returned to its pristine condition and somewhere in New York City someone is wearing beautiful ivory and lace French lingerie— size eight—free of charge. I wish I could afford beautiful ivory and lace French lingerie. I wish I were a size eight.

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