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One Mans Battle with Identity Theft

Last week Michael R. Steiner spoke at the state Society of CPAs’ education center in Roseland about his experience when a crime ring lifted his identity—an adventure that started with a call from a bank concerning a loan application he hadn’t filed. A CPA and wealth manager with Regent Atlantic Capital in Chatham, Steiner also spoke in detail…NJBIZ: You’re a CPA and a certified financial planner, yet your information was compromised. That doesn’t bode well for the rest of us. What happened?

Steiner: Nearly four years after my identity was stolen and more than three years after the people who did it were caught, the police, the FBI and the Secret Service told me that they’re not sure just how it happened, or if I could do anything to prevent it.

NJBIZ: How did you find out someone else was using your name and social security number?

Steiner: In mid-February of 2003…the phone rang at about 10:00 in the morning. A woman announced she was calling from MBNA bank and, thinking she was a telemarketer, I said I wasn’t interested. And suddenly she tells me that she’s calling to verify the submission of my loan application. That got my attention.

NJBIZ: How much was it for?

Steiner: I asked her that, and she said $20,000. I told her I wasn’t familiar with any such loan application, and then she told me the applicant’s address was in Jersey City [Steiner lives in Livingston]. And then she said it looks like someone got hold of my identifying information.

NJBIZ: Did they try to scam any other institutions?

Steiner: Once I started contacting credit reporting agencies I found out a credit card in my name had been used for a couple of hundred dollars of purchases in the Route 22 shopping areas in Union. And there were two other unsecured loan applications in my name. One of the banks managed to stop it, but the other didn’t. And even today I’m still fighting with debt collection agencies over $9,000 the bank says it’s owed. When the ring was finally busted in mid-2003, law enforcement agencies said it had been responsible for about $100 million of identity-theft crimes.

NJBIZ: What did you do when you realized your information had been compromised?

Steiner: I contacted credit agencies and had them put a fraud-security alert on my accounts. That’s a kind of prompt that should let lenders know they need to take additional security measures before extending any credit. And that night I got a call from the fraud unit of Home Depot. It seems someone had gone down to the Route 22 store and tried to get a card in my name. They saw the alert and asked the person if he could identify my previous address. At that point the guy turned around and walked out.

NJBIZ: You mentioned that a bank is trying to collect $9,000 from you.

Steiner: That’s right. One bank loaned $11,000 to the perp, but apparently recovered $2,000. After some initial discussion the bank stopped speaking to me and put me into collections. That’s still going on today.

NJBIZ: Did you get much help from law enforcement agencies?

Steiner: Initially, when I only knew about the Route 22 shopping spree, both the FBI and the Secret Service said the amounts were too small. And when I complained to the Livingston police, they refused to write up an official report on the matter. That’s part of the reason the bank’s still going after me. But after the fraudulent loan came to light, the law enforcement agencies became more active.

NJBIZ: How easy is it to get someone’s personal information?

Steiner: It’s very easy for a thief to obtain your information: name, date of birth, social security number. Let’s say you go to a doctor or buy a cell phone, they want your name, date of birth and social security number. I don’t give them my social security number anymore. Every time you put sensitive documents in the garbage instead of shredding them, you’re extending an invitation to an identity thief. There are a lot of dumpster divers out there going through businesses’ and individuals’ trash to find out information.

NJBIZ: Should every business and individual go out and buy a shredder?

Steiner: A cross-cut. Definitely.

NJBIZ: Can you ever be sure your identity isn’t being compromised?

Steiner: No.

NJBIZ: Then as a fallback, how can you find out if someone else is using your name?

Steiner: Be vigilant, and take steps like checking your credit report on a regular basis.

NJBIZ: Is there any good news about identity theft?

Steiner: Come January 1, a new state law will allow you to direct credit reporting agencies to freeze your information and only release it with your approval. That makes it tougher for criminals to access it. It also gives people the right to get a copy of a police report if they’ve been a victim of identity theft. These measures will go a long way toward providing more protection.

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