Friday, March 12, 2010

Identity Theft...Happy Friday to Me!

I finally found someone I hate more than the Illinois Tollway System (and if you know about the Illinois Tollway debacle we went through, you know how huge this is) - identity theives.

Last August, the hubs went to get a haircut early one Saturday morning. He called me a half hour later, sounding unhappy, and saying his card had been declined. Hmmm, I thought - I had just paid bills the day before and knew we had enough money in the account. So I hopped online and took a peek at our online banking when I noticed two charges that weren't ours - for a grocery store in Europe. Considering that a) I hadn't been to Europe since 1994 and b) I am too cheap to ever pay for overseas shipping (unless it was a local restaurant here in town I love that ships overseas), I did what I do in any situation like this: panic.

And get angry. But mostly panic.

I saw that thankfully, only about $300-$400 had been taken, and we still had a good amount of money in our account. I called the bank immediately and learned that they had stopped use of my husband's card because of the two strange online purchases, as they were from his card number.

THANK YOU HARRIS BANK!

I was grateful that they had stopped future use of his card by recognizing that we wouldn't be purchasing groceries in Europe a mere two hours after we had purchased something here in town.

What followed was three months filled with cancelling cards, filling out forms, filing reports, verifying that we indeed not eating European groceries, and then finally, 90 days later, a refund on the money we lost.

Whew. I was so relieved, and simply grateful to be done with it all.

Fast forward to last night.

I'm paying bills through online banking when I look and notice a $1 charge to "AOL*services". What? We don't use AOL. I wake my poor, tired, groggy hubs up at midnight (he has to get up about 2:30 a.m.), and ask him if he has signed up for anything or purchased anything with AOL. Nope, he replies.

So off I go to find customer service for AOL. Simple, right? Because every company has contact information on their website.

Wrong. Not AOL.

Their Contact Us option is for their subscribers and paying customers. Really?

After scouring the internet through searches for AOL customer service, I find an appropriate number and call. I wiggle my way through having to put in my AOL screenname and such (because they don't exist) and FINALLY get a rep on the phone, who has a thick accent. Great.

Trying to understand her, and her trying to understand me, I finally get out of her that she can run my card numbers to see if there has been activity, because after reading my friend's account of someone getting cable with her info, I was sure someone was trying to get AOL and make me pay for it.

She runs the numbers and again, it's hubs card. She says unless someone tries to actually subscribe with this card, there's nothing they can do, because the charge for $1 was simply a test charge to see if the account was active.

Hmmmm. I've read about that, I thought.

I get off the phone with her, google "$1+charge+identity+theft", and learn about how theives will ping an account with AOL or something similar to see if the card is active, and then they'll try charging something on it. Now I was throwing myself into serious heart palpatations because we had just had our tax refund electronically deposited into our bank account the day before, and I hadn't moved it over to our savings (because our savings is at another bank with better interest rates for savings accounts).

If you know me, you know these kinds of things work me up pretty bad. I work very hard for my money, I budget so I can save and take care of our family. The thought of not being able to pay bills or provide for my kids is something that makes me physically ill to think about, and so when it comes to people stealing from me like this, I get sick. I'm pretty sure back in August and again last night (and of course, with the freaking tollway), my bloodpressure reached heights that would have doctors in serious saving mode.

I immediately called and cancelled Jaime's card. They assure me that nothing can be charged to it now. After stewing for 10 minutes, I cancel mine, too, just to be careful in case the AOL woman mixed up the numbers and said it was my hubs when it was really mine (see the paranoia??)

I alert the boss that I'll be in late as I have to straighten this out, and I go to the bank after dropping off the kids. First stop: where my savings account is, and I write a check and deposit all of our tax return money in there.

Second stop, my checking account bank down the street. I talk to a very nice woman who assures me no charges can be made, she makes a note on my account, orders me a new card, and was very kind and helpful.

So finally reassured that no one will be stealing my money, I head into work. Whew. Crisis averted, my heart can start beating normally again and hopefully my bloodpressure can return to normal.

Here is what I want to pass on to you, and PLEASE take some time to consider it and protect yourself. I can tell you from experience, having to go through the process of getting your money back (and sometimes, people don't get it back) is a pain. On top of that, we were lucky it was only a few hundred dollars - I cannot imagine if it had been more. Most of the time, hubs and I don't keep any extra money in our checking - our paychecks are deposited, I pay the bills the next day, and then all that's left is what we budgeted for spending money that week. Still - that is money that we need, and I don't want to take any more chances that it will be taken.

  • Don't use your ATM/Debit card for purchases. It's simple, it's easy - we all know that. And I've had mine for six years or so, and my card number had not been stolen (and I used it ALOT). But, it can happen to anyone, anywhere, anytime - all it takes is a restaurant waiter taking your payment back with your card number and the three digit-code on the back for your identity to get stolen and your account drained. In this case, I think it was probably someone the hubs encounters on his work route when he's picking up something to eat or along those lines - because it's happened twice in 6 months with only his card - and he does not use it for anything online (neither of us do!).
  • Don't use your ATM/Debit card for anything online. That's all - just don't do it.
  • Have a Credit Card for purchases - We have two credit cards. One is for everyday stuff (which we weren't using, but now will) that we can pay off each week through set-up online payments. The other is for purchases online or big purchases. Credit cards offer better fraud protection than Debit cards, because with debit cards, people can drain your actual money instead of just putting purchases on a credit card.
  • Check your bank statements or even better - check your online banking every other day or every few days. I wasn't going to do bills last night, but I decided to just get it over with. In honesty, I actually check our banking account online at the very least, every other day (especially since last August). Lucky for me I checked last night and saw that $1 charge, because otherwise the theives might have had a chance to make purchases last night before I caught it today.
  • Follow your gut. I hemmed and hawed at first over whether I should cancel our cards last night, because what if it was just a charge for something one of us bought and I just couldn't remember buying it. Instead, I followed my gut and cancelled because it just seemed out of place - and I'm glad I did, before we faced any more trouble.
  • Use cash. It's still the best fraud-free method of payment!

Now go forth and be wise about spending. Learn and protect yourself, because while it's just money, it's how we are able to pay our bills and go through day to day expenses. We've learned our lesson and thankfully, it wasn't tremendously costly (unless you count my gray hair and heart palpatations). TGIF. I need the weekend!

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