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Stealing My Good Name
I fought back against identity theft
Chimore Mack
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I never thought my identity could be stolen. Every time I watched a movie or show about identity theft, I thought that the victim must be stupid. “All they have to do is sue the people,” I’d think. But it’s a lot more complicated than that, as I found out the hard way.

I was about to age out of foster care, so I had started making goals for each month so I could become more financially independent, step by step. I wanted to get a job and get a credit card so I could start building up a good credit score. You need good credit to qualify for loans to pay for college or a house. It can also help you get a credit card with a low interest rate.

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A high credit score shows that you pay your bills on time. A person with a bad credit score looks unreliable. Bad credit means you have a lot of debt and might have a lot of late fees from not paying bills on time, and you may have maxed out your credit cards.

I hadn’t done any of those things, so I applied for a credit card with confidence. I would only have three things on my report: my T-Mobile cell phone bill, college loan, and my old bank account.

A month later, I received a letter stating that I wasn’t approved for the credit card because the company had checked my credit history and it was bad. The letter also said I could write to a credit agency called Experian to get a copy of my credit report, which would explain more. I wrote to the address and waited anxiously to receive news from Experian.

Bad News

Another month passed before my credit report arrived. It reminded me of a report card, but instead of grades you get a rating based on how much money you owe on loans and credit cards, and whether you’ve paid your bills on time. All of that gets reported to the credit agency.

To my surprise, my report showed credit cards in my name that I’d never applied for. My name was misspelled on many of the accounts. There were unpaid bills from businesses called Midnight Velvet, Roaman’s, and Seattle Sally.

What were these places? And why was my name on credit cards that I’d never even applied for? The report showed a Capital One credit card bill in my name that said I owed $1,223.45!

That’s when I realized that someone had opened all these accounts in my name. Someone was out there using my identity to get credit cards and buying things I would never buy. I couldn’t believe it. I asked myself, “How am I going to get out of this situation?”

Disputing It

I went straight to my best friend Denise, because she had also been a victim of identity theft. She advised me to always keep copies of all receipts and bill statements. She told me to always stay on top of my bills and credit card statements and to check my credit report regularly.

Denise also explained how I could dispute claims on my credit report that weren’t mine. To dispute means to challenge something that’s incorrect or fraudulent. If you’re persistent, you can get fraudulent things erased from the report so that your credit rating will go up.

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So I started the long process of working with the credit agency Experian to dispute all the fraudulent things on my credit report. Experian deleted some of these things from my account right away when I gave them proof of my address. But I still had that big debt to Capital One.

Frozen!

My next step was to give Capital One a call, but I only had the number for customer service, which required you to give them your credit card number in order to access their phone system. I didn’t even know the number of the credit card, since it was the thief—not me—who had opened the account in my name.

I was about to just give up and let Capital One win until I received a notice of judgment from Cohen and Slamowitz, a law firm working for Capital One. (A judgment is when creditors—credit card companies, collection agencies—freeze your credit when you haven’t paid your bill.) It seemed that Capital One was trying to collect that $1,223.45 from me.

Even if you don’t have a credit card now, frozen credit can keep you from getting a job, a bank account, a credit card, or even a lease for an apartment. It follows you around until the debt is paid off. When I realized this, I was like, “Oh really? I’m definitely going to get to the bottom of this.”

Believe me when I say that I was angry and very nervous. But I worked up the courage to contact Capital One, and they transferred me to the fraud department. I told them that it wasn’t me who’d applied for the card and how stressed out I was about the debt. They comforted and reassured me and sent me a five-page form to fill out that would help them verify that the account was fraudulent.

The packet had a lot of basic questions, like where I was born and all the places I’d lived, to make sure that the addresses that the thief used didn’t match mine. I asked my caseworker to write a letter verifying my situation and that I was living with a foster parent. I prayed to God that I’d be able to age out of care without this mess hanging over my head.

Being Smart About Credit

The following month, I received letters from Experian and two other major credit bureaus stating that the account from Capital One was proven to be fraudulent and was going to be deleted from my credit report. It said the charges were going to be removed from my credit report within 60 to 90 days. I was jumping up and down and called Denise to tell her the good news.

Denise told me to make sure to send the letter to the creditors, which I did. Afterward, Capital One wrote me a letter apologizing for the inconvenience and assuring me that the fraudulent account would be deleted. I also requested copies of my credit report from each of the three big credit bureaus, just to be sure all fraudulent charges and accounts really were removed from my credit history.

This experience has taught me that identity theft can happen to anyone, and you can’t just ignore it. It felt like a nightmare, but I didn’t give up.

To my great relief, I recently got a job, but only after I’d been turned down for jobs at several retail stores. Guess what? Employers can run credit checks on people who apply for jobs. It seems I was turned down for these jobs because of my poor credit report before I took steps to fix the mistake. These thieves had threatened my future, and although it wasn’t my fault, I know now that I have to be ready to guard my identity.

I’ve started checking my credit card statements carefully every month. I know now that as soon as I see a charge for something I didn’t buy, or a bill for an account I never opened, I should contact the credit card company. It’s up to me to protect my good name.

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(FCYU-2010-01-22)