Sunday, February 2, 2014

Identity Theft: Guilty Until Proven Innocent

“What is your identity?” It’s more than just an existential question, it’s a question that you need to ask yourself when addressing a potential identity theft situation. To be more precise, you have to ask yourself, “What is it that identifies you?” To begin the recovery process once you detect an identity theft, something that I discussed recently in relation to my own issue, you have to be able to provide documentation that assures everyone involved that you are who you say that you are. Perhaps even more important is the inverse, that you need to be able to show that you aren’t who you say you aren’t.

I was already able to dispute the collection claim against my credit report through the handy electronic interfaces that each credit bureau provides, but I also needed to clear all of the personal information from my record that doesn’t actually represent my historical identity. TransUnion made it easy to dispute that information online, but Experian requires a phone call to discuss the issue. Also, given my history of disputing the collection of this very same account, I knew that I also needed to deal with Dish Network. In either case, I needed to get my paperwork in order.

My first step to combat this identity theft was to go to a good website set up by the U.S. Federal Trade Commission (FTC), ftc.gov/idtheft. That site includes a great amount of information about actions that you can take when you suspect that you’re the victim of identity theft.

The FTC lists three steps that identity theft victims should do immediately:
  1. Place an Initial Fraud Alert: I followed this step the first time that I found the problem and the only result then was an incredible inconvenience when trying to set up new utility services. Since I hadn’t seen any more recent issues with my credit reports, I decided that this step was unnecessary in this case. However, I would consider it to be critical in most situations.
  2. Order Your Credit Reports: Already done via AnnualCreditReport.com. It’s too bad that the FTC doesn’t also provide you guidance on how to read them, though.
  3. Create an Identity Theft Report: The FTC site provides a nice walkthrough for collecting the pertinent information related to the potential identity theft. It keeps this information for its records and spits out a pre-filled pdf form with much of the information that you provide. I walked through the process, got the form, and revised it to include information that the FTC won’t pass through to the form. 
Going through the FTC process helped me collect all of the information that I would need. Then, I felt confident enough to contact Dish Network.

Helping an identity theft victim is clearly not a priority for Dish. When I called the customer support line, the only two options for directing my call were whether or not I was a subscriber. I stopped and thought about that for a moment. “I’m not really a subscriber, but I’m dealing with a subscriber issue.” I made the wrong choice, going the “not a subscriber” route, only to be quickly punted with a statement of, “let me put you in touch with someone who can help you,” and finding myself back at the subscriber/non-subscriber question. This time, I chose subscriber, explained that I needed to get transferred to whoever deals with fraud. That worked.

When I spoke to the Dish fraud guy, we started to have an argument about whether or not this was identity theft. I said, “Look, Dish just gave service to someone who gave fraudulent information.” He responded, “That is what identity theft is.” The rest of his statement basically came down to this: Give us all of your personal information to prove that this isn’t you. I hate that. Why is it that the only way to respond to an identity theft is to throw more of your personal information around? It’s illogical. 

Rather than continue to argue the merits of the identity theft designation, I figured that it would be better for me to just be agreeable and find out what Dish needed. Front and back of my drivers license. Check. Phone and email address. OK, easy enough. Police report. Hmm, that’s new. Now, I was going to have to take time away from work to deal with an error that some company made. Wonderful. In my line of work, doing that is actually pretty easy. For many others, it’s not. It makes you wonder why these companies that seem to want customers treat consumers so poorly. I realize now that in the case of identity theft, the consumer is guilty until proven innocent.

With it still being the weekend of my initial discovery, I had pretty much hit the wall of what I could do outside of normal business hours. I now needed to go to my local police department to report the potential identity theft and I still needed to call Experian about all of the personal data that it needed to remove from my report. 

Time spent so far: 6 hours.
Cost. $0