I Bought What?

If you see the other Lynn Hamilton, would you let her know the gig is up?

Yes, it happened to me--the solvent curmudgeon. Suspicious of debt, I NEVER shop on line, never disclose my credit card number over the internet, even on secured lines, and pay off my very occasional charged purchase at the end of the month. Because of these eccentric practices, the real Lynn Hamilton gets turned down for credit all the time.

When I told my mother I was the victim of identity theft, she didn't believe me. "Why would anyone steal your identity? It's too undesirable," was her comment.

So it's especially aggravating to learn that, armed with only my correct social security number, somebody MASQUERADING as me was able to get a credit card with J.C. Penney and charge up over $3000 in merchandise that now shows up on all my credit reports.

My first indication of trouble was when Discover Company sent me a letter, with the heading "fraud alert," saying they had received a credit application from me, but they had some questions.

Well, no, I hadn't applied for a Discover card, if that's the question.

What looked like it might just be a routine mix up led to free credit reports from all the major credit reporting agencies.

Trips to my mail box turned into good scripts for a horror flick as I opened one credit report after another on which the information was about 5% accurate. I just have to note here that if I had this kind of track record as a journalist, I wouldn't be allowed to write for the flat earth club newsletter.

Turns out someone operating in the Chicago area has been running around applying for credit using a variation of my name, a variation of my birthday (close, but no cigar), and my correct-to-the-digit social.

To their credit, most companies have shot the other Lynn Hamilton down for a charge card. But not J.C. Penney. No, Penney was more than happy to give L Marie Hamilton or whoever she is a credit card. When she immediately charged up over $3000 in merchandise, they let her, despite the $1500 limit which appears to have been academic.

Penney's fraud department in Albuquerque, New Mexico, told me that no, they did not know where the application had originated from. It was mailed in. Nor, check this out, did they know where it had been mailed TO.

It was, and I'm quoting directly here, "forwarded to Mexico, and that's where it was inputted."

Nevertheless, this account, closed by Penney's when they slowly became suspicious, will remain on my credit history until the company deigns to do an investigation. Equifax refuses to remove the account at my request.

Everyone I have talked to agrees on one thing: This is my fault. I haven't guarded my social security number carefully enough, I've been told.

In my mind, lately, I've been going over the many places one is obliged to give out one's social security number. If you apply to college, if you apply for a job, if you even sell a piece of work (in my case, a newspaper or magazine article), sometimes even when you just need to write a check, you are expected to fork over your social security number.

To guard your social security number completely, then, you need to be able to do without an education, a job, and a free copy of your credit report when your number falls into the wrong hands, anyway. When I called the credit reporting agencies, the very first thing they wanted was my social, though why I should trust them still isn't clear.

My own unpopular analysis of this problem is that no one wants to wait until they can actually afford all the toys they crave, and businesses are far too anxious to put people under the yoke of high-interest loans.

But, as usual, I'm a lone voice howling in the wilderness. (Howling with pain, lately.)

I'm not alone in having my identity stolen, however. Hurl a frisbee in any direction, you'll hit someone who has had a similar problem. While my cousin Scott and his wife Zelda (names changed to protect THEIR identity) were on vacation, someone in their hometown opened an account for them at Hecht, a company, like Penney, that doesn't do much homework before letting someone charge up three grand.

Even though Scott and Zelda are millionaires a few times over, Hecht put them through a humiliating wringer before conceding they weren't just trying to welsh on a debt.

The kind and patient police detective who filed a report for me had his own story. He thought he was using a secured line while shopping on the internet, but 900 numbers he KNEW he never called started showing up on his credit card bill.

Even Tech journalist Jim Louderback suffered a series of illegal transfers of cash from his bank account to an unknown shyster's credit card. If even technology's spokesmen are vulnerable to this sort of thing, I despair.

I have learned a couple useful things from this experience that I'm happy to pass on to you:

1. You CAN get free copies of your credit reports from the major credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion--by reporting yourself as a victim of fraud. At the rate we are going, pretty much everyone can assume they are or will be a victim, so I have no compunction about recommending you circumvent the usual $8.50 cost of obtaining a (probably innaccurate) report as follows: Call Experian at 1 888 397-3742 and follow the automated instructions for having a fraud alert put on your report. At the end of this process, Experian will give you the toll free numbers for the other two CRAs. Call them, and go through the same process.

2. One of the many ways unsavory people get hold of your personal info is via those pre-approved credit offers distributed through mass mailings. You know: "You! have already been approved for our card! Fill out this application today! to get your free gift garbage!" If one of these enthusiastic offers strays to the wrong address--say an apartment you moved out of 15 years ago, the new tenant can fill the application out and possibly establish a line of credit using your identify. Or somebody can pull it out of the trash. (As this is probably what happened to me, I have lots of imagined scenarios. If you want to hear about them in pornographic detail, email me.) A little known fact of identity theft protection is that you can call 1 (888) 567-8688 and request that your name be taken off lists for these unsolicited credit and insurance offers.

And if you see the other Lynn Hamilton while she's out shopping at the mall with my card, will you tell her she needs to acquire some taste, or she'll surely be busted. If the real Lynn Hamilton were into buying on time, she would have opened an account at Sax Fifth Avenue or Godiva, not Penney's, for god's sake.

Lynn Hamilton is a freelance writer living on Tybee Island, Georgia. Contact her at lynn_hamilton@excite.com.

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