I now live in a Houston slum, where I have 6 or 7 cell phones and casually charge up thousands of dollars at the local Sam’s Club. I use all these cell phones to place calls to Houston, Bammel, and other towns around Houston, and to places in Louisiana.

It’s true if you believe the information in my recent credit report, and in my last cell phone bill. Somebody, who we’ll call Mark Thomas, got my social security number and date of birth, walked into all kinds of places, said “Hi, it’s Mark Thomas here, gimme a credit card,” bought I don’t even know what at Sam’s Club and other places, and got all the cell phones and service plans they wanted.

It’s straight out of those “Citicard Identity Theft Solutions” commercials (except my voice didn’t change, though I half expected it to).

It started a couple of months ago, when Chase Bank’s fraud department called to ask about a bunch of suspicious purchases on my Chase Master Card. When the call came I assumed it was a scam artist trying to scare me into giving up my account number or other information, so I just sat and listened to this woman talk. After a minute of her reading off charges made on my card at drive-ins and auto repair shops in and around Houston I checked my online statement and saw that one of these charges was really there. So she was for real.

She kept reading off charges and I kept saying no, I never made that purchase, never even been to Houston, and after a few minutes she said I would not be liable for any of the purchases.

I thought that was the end of it, but the next week I checked my credit report and saw all these “Inquiries” from cell phone companies and stores like Linens ‘n’ Things and some discount auto repair shop. At first I didn’t realize these were bad. I thought these were routine credit-worthiness inquiries, known as soft inquiries, and that I should expect junk mail from all these companies.

But these were hard inquiries against existing accounts. Existing accounts? I didn’t have accounts with any of these companies. This was full bore identity theft, and I don’t mind saying that at first I pretty well panicked.

I spent a paranoid weekend just understanding what had happened: Somebody got my personal information, walked into a bunch of places, said they were me, and that was all they needed to score lots of free stuff. Not only did they get all the cell phones and calling plans they wanted, they also had full access to my existing credit lines, and I think they had access to my checking and savings accounts, retirement plans, and investments.

I checked my online statement with Sprint and found dozens of calls made to the Houston area using 2 new lines that had been added to my account. This is when I discovered that “I” lived in Texas, because they not only added two extra lines to my cell phone account but they changed my billing address to a Houston apartment building. I called Sprint to ask how this could have happened. They promised a response within 72 hours, but
that response never came (I never expected it to).

I imagined all kinds of bad scenarios, not all of them unrealistic under the circumstances.

I woke up on Saturday unsure who I was, wondering what else had been taken away. Would my bank account be emptied? When I stepped outside would there be goons waiting to beat the shit out of me, saying I owed them money? What if my life in Houston was that of a serial murderer or a child molester? Will the keys to my apartment work when I get home? When I go to my regular pub will everyone see me and turn away? Would my friends still talk to me?

I even contemplated closing this and all my web sites, thinking something on these pages had some connection to what happened.

Saturday night I played some Chopin pieces and Ravel songs on a concert in Queens. After the concert the organizer handed me a check. It was in an envelope with my name on it. I saw my name and said “HOW DO YOU KNOW MY NAME? WHERE DID YOU GET THAT?” I was joking, of course. The concert organizer is a friend of mine. But it was a real reaction to seeing my name in someone else’s hands.

Fortunately I am not imminently concerned about my credit rating. I care about it, of course, but am not looking to buy a house or anything else in the next few years, nor do I expect to pursue any kind of job that might do a credit check (or any other job, for that matter). As far as this episode goes the credit rating stuff should fix itself before I need it for anything.

I called the credit bureaus. I called every company that issued “me” a credit card or a cell phone account. I explained the situation over and over, and was relieved to find that every company I talked to treated this as fairly routine. Later, I wondered if explained why the crooks chose these businesses.

I checked balances and transactions for accounts and investments I forgot I even had. I called the NYPD to file a report. I didn’t want to do this, partly because I didn’t want to bother them with something I knew they could do nothing about, and partly because I was still ticked at getting kicked out of a park for taking pictures of the Throgs Neck Bridge. But in case something “I” did might get me arrested I wanted the record to show that I live in New York, so I filed the report.

I remembered an episode of some TV news magazine which profiled a man who couldn’t get a job because all employers he interviewed with did a background check and found he was a convicted child molester. But he was not a child molester. He had no criminal record. Someone else got arrested for child sex crimes, and the police officer filing the report accidentally switched two of the digits in the real criminal’s social security number. The error was never caught, and the person whose social security number was used suddenly and without his knowledge became a registered sex offender.

I could think of no reason why something like that could not happen to me.

While waiting for the police to come over here I got a hang-up call on my cell phone, from an “Unknown Caller.” This had never happened before on that phone. No connection to the business in Houston, I can reasonably say now, but it made me wonder if somewhere in life I had provoked someone out there into harassing me.

I thought of an ongoing series of angry calls I get on my home phone. The calls are for someone named Krishna. Krishna sounds like s/he owes someone money because angry people keep calling. I keep ignoring the calls, because I don’t think Krishna exists. I think it’s a telemarketing scam. They call you, they sound threatening, and their threatening delivery forces the weak-willed to call them back to tell them they have the wrong number.

But your callback establishes a “relationship” with them that lets them bomb you with all the telemarketing calls the phone lines will allow.

Hah, this is funny. While sitting here typing this a call came in. Answering machine picks up. Person leaves a message saying “Hi, this is Mark Thomas. I’m looking for your dad, Jack Thomas.”

My dad’s name ain’t Jack. The caller didn’t mention what my name is. All part of the vast ID theft conspiracy? Am I calling myself and not realizing it? Is the circle complete?

But I don’t think Krishna or what I believe to be a scam have anything to do with the ID theft. Those calls have come in for months and months. I used to get similar calls for someone named Richard.

But what of Jack?

Dang. I just made digital versions of that answering message, in case you didn’t believe that such a call came in while discussing my identity. I say dang because it turns out the caller said “If this is Mark Thomas.. Meaning this person is calling every Mark Thomas in the book looking for someone but not identifying himself as Mark Thomas in some complex attempt to further fuck with me.

Well, here’s the audio anyway, just for kicks: MP3 or RealAudio

Eventually I quit flattering myself into thinking this was somehow directed at me personally (though I suppose it’s hard not to take something like your identity personally). It was, as I should have recognized right away, typical drive-by identity theft. And, as the NYPD said, it was probably carried out by organized crime. That being the case I don’t even want to know how they got my information.

I’ve spent the last couple of months signing affidavits, getting documents lost in the mail, submitting and re-submitting fraud claims, and so on to a point
where I think it’s basically straightened out.

I told this story to a number of people, and one particular reaction surprises me. Some people think I’m bragging, in a way, to have had this happen. Bragging because they think this only happens to people who are worth a lot of money. Well I am not worth a lot of money, and even if I was that would have nothing to do with it. Whoever does this obtains personal information on thousands of people. They pick up credit cards and cell phones using individuals’ social security numbers and birthdates until someone notices, and they move on to the next person whose information they possess. The cell phone lines let them communicate anonymously and the store credit cards let them get a bunch of stuff to sell elsewhere down the food chain. They don’t raid your bank account or buy houses (though they could) because that would raise too many alarms and get the feds involved. What happened to me was low-level enough that law enforcement will never pursue it.

The other thing that surprised me is that I haven’t talked to one single person who says this has happened to them. Lots of people I know had their credit cards used illegally, but that’s old hat. For the so-called fastest growing crime in America I’d expect to know at least one person who could commiserate.

I now subscribe to an identity monitoring service. They claim I will be notified instantly if anyone tries to do anything using my social security number. I have no confidence in this service, but I’ll take it for the sake of feeling productive. I will not detail why I have zero confidence in the credit bureaus’ ability or motivation to run a successful identity monitoring operation, because my reasons are boring as hell. I think it’s a weak level of protection. I have more confidence in the ingenuity and motivation of criminals then the ability of credit bureaus, banks, or law enforcement to keep up with them in this type of crime.