INTRODUCTION from "Victim To Victor"

How My Long Nightmare Can Shorten Yours

ďYouíre the best victim weíve ever had!Ē  

When a fraud investigator at the Ventura, California Police Department spoke these words to me, I felt dumbfounded.   This was a compliment?  I donít like to think of myself as a victim.  Although Iíve endured setbacks and even tragedies in my life, just as you probably have, Iíve always been able to survive and grow in the process. But not until I became a victim of identity theft ó when someone impersonates you to commit various types of financial fraud (or worse yet, if they commit crimes in your name) ó did I know how devastated, overwhelmed, and really frightened I could be.  It was a nightmare.  But I guess, as the detective suggested, I was a very good example of what to do when very bad things happen.

A lot of very bad things did happen.  But, I hope, this book is one of the good things that has emerged from my ordeal Ö and I hope it assists you in getting the help you need!

One thing I learned back in 1996, when this happened to me, was that no step-by-step, "fill-in-the-blanks" guide for identity-theft victims even existed.  Though I met some helpful, sympathetic folks whom Iíll tell you about, I generally found a lack of hard information about what to do and how exactly to do it.   Worse yet, I ran into a brick wall in the form of major banks and government bureaucracies.  It took tremendous effort for me to overcome these obstacles and to assert my legal and financial rights.  I had to prove my innocence. Today, these same challenges exist for victims of this crime; however, new laws have helped improve the situation somewhat.

If youíve had the misfortune to become an identity-theft victim, the information in this book and on this CD can help shorten your nightmare. If you are not a victim, but wish to avoid becoming one, you can use this book as your protection guide. But, before we start, just so youíll know Iím no stranger to what youíre facing, let me tell you what happened to me. 

On August 16, 1996, I received a telephone call from the Bank of New York, Delaware, asking why I had not paid my $11,000 credit card bill.  I was shocked!  I didnít have a credit card from that bank, and I certainly didnít owe $11,000.  Clearly, someone claiming to be me had made the purchases ó and who knows how many more accounts they had opened in my name?

I hadnít lost my wallet.  I hadnít been mugged.  I hadnít loaned my credit cards to anyone; in fact, Iíd always taken pains to be careful with my confidential documents.  So how could this have happened? 

I had no idea.  Whatís more, I had no clue what to do about it.  Suddenly, I did feel like a victim.  My life seemed out of control; my carefully woven rug of financial security had been pulled out from under me.  Itís not too strong to say I felt violated ó ďfinancially raped.Ē Somewhere out there I had an ďevil twinĒ who had cloned me!

Luckily, I had the presence of mind to insist that the Bank of New York, Delaware send me all documents, including the original application by the fraud perpetrator, and the billing statements (at the time, there was no law requiring companies to provide documentation of the fraud, and most companies refused.) Finally, after much pleading on my part, the company told me that the card had been issued to an address in Ventura, California ó four hours from my home.  The bank informed me that its fraud department would handle my case, but that I should call the credit reporting agencies immediately and deal with the other false information that might have been put on my credit report.

Well, the bank didnít send the documents as promised.   Instead of helping me with my account, the bank sold it to a collection agency.  Soon, I began receiving threatening phone calls and letters from the bill collectors.  In fact, the bank wouldnít send the police or me any documentation until I finally was able to corral a bank vice president on the phone to say they were obstructing justice.

After receiving no assistance from my local police, the FBI, or the Secret Service, I called the Ventura Police Department, in the city where the perpetrator received the credit card.  Although most victims donít get much help from police (because there are too many cases and they are labor-intensive to investigate), I was lucky, because Dave Inglis, the watch commander in the VPDís fraud unit, had himself been living in identity theft hell for over a year.  I will forever be grateful to him for going beyond his duty to investigate my case. His empathy as a fellow victim was a blessing. 

Within five days of my learning about the fraud, the Ventura police went to the address where the credit cards had been sent.  They spoke to a woman living there who claimed to have known me.  She told them that she received mail in my name because I used to live in that home. 

When I told the police that Iíd never lived in, or even visited, Ventura, they returned to her home.  After discovering that she was on probation for shoplifting, the police got a search warrant and were able to search her home and find a variety of items in my name, including:  billing statements from various creditors; letters from collection agencies; a letter from Thrifty Rental Car threatening to sue me at her address for damages to a vehicle she rented; checks with my name on them; my own business cards snatched from my office identifying me as an attorney; and a credit report that she had obtained from Equifax (one of the three major credit reporting agencies).   They also found drugs and a .22-caliber Beretta handgun.

The suspect was arrested and released on bail.  Thus, she was free to continue driving the red Mustang convertible that she had purchased using my name and credit, and to continue to apply for more fraudulent accounts using my credit.  Although many months later she pleaded guilty to six counts of felony fraud, and didnít show up for her sentencing hearing, the judge leniently allowed her to participate in a work-furlough program instead of going to jail ó after all this was not a violent crime.   She didnít enter that work-furlough program until 10 months after she was first arrested.  During that entire time, she was able to continue her identity theft against me, and others.  After her short "punishment," she was picked up in another state for committing identity fraud on another victim.

At that same time, while I was assisting the police, district attorney, and courts in prosecuting the fraud perpetrator, I was overwhelmed by the task of cleaning up my destroyed credit. (The woman who stole my identity used over $50,000 worth of credit in my name. She obtained a $15,000 credit line that included checks with my name, and several high-limit credit cards, including a telephone card.)  Straightening all this out was a true ordeal, which depleted me physically, emotionally, and financially.

I spent hours on the Internet, researching identity fraud. I tried to find out what steps I should take and who could help me to regain my financial stability and my identity.   At that time, there was little help for victims. Now that we have an identity theft epidemic, there are more resources available, such as those listed by the Federal Trade Commission at www.consumer.gov/idtheft and in our resources.  I spent over 500 hours on the phone, and writing 90 certified letters to firms and agencies.  I dealt with crime investigators, various credit grantors, my own banks, government agencies, the State Bar of California (remember she was parading as an attorney, passing out my business cards), and even my auto insurance company.  During that hectic first month, and off and on for months afterwards, I was unable to sleep, however with tenacity I did regain my identity.

How to use this book

To make your path easier, Iíve laid out step-by-step instructions, listed the agencies to contact for help, and provided all the legal letters you need to write.  (In fact, this book and the CD include form letters to help you speed up the arduous task of letter writing. The letters are complete with the legal demands you can make in accordance with the current law; you just fill in the blanks.) I have created for you, the package that I wish I would have had when I was victimized.  This guide and CD will ease your anguish and expedite the process of regaining your credit, your identity, and your sanity.

First itís critical to get organized.  You must make a list of priorities, and you must document in writing all your conversations with the various agencies and companies.  At first, I didnít ó I just stuck little notes everywhere and got terribly confused.  Then, I wised up (and started thinking like a lawyer again), and began keeping a detailed record so that I could hold everyone accountable to provide me with the information that I requested, and was entitled to, in a timely manner. Those records saved me many times. (In Chapter 5, Iíll explain how you can set up a similar system.)

You not only need to clear up your present situation, you'll also want to protect your future financial profile and make sure you donít have a false criminal profile out there.  So, you must insist and ensure that the appropriate changes and corrections are made on all your records, and that all fraud is completely removed. This means following up thoroughly, and thatís another reason itís so important to get organized, so you donít forget about an account that will surely resurface later.

Lacking a step-by-step guide to follow, I had to make one up as I went along. Fortunately, I found the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (www.privacyrights.org) and received a sympathetic ear from the director, Beth Givens.  They developed the first strategic list of what to do if you become a victim of identity theft.  Our guide in Chapter four is similar, but greatly expanded and more detailed.

In addition to being organized and persistent, you must brace yourself for the fact that many times youíre going to be treated as the ďsuspect.Ē  Though identity theft is a form of robbery that nets more money than the kind with guns, it's often hard to educate others to take the crime seriously.  Police may not want to make a report because if they do, they will feel obligated to investigate. With their mounting workload they just donít have the resources to investigate most cases.  The Department of Motor Vehicles prefers not to issue a new license because that in itself may be an invitation to fraud.  And, the Social Security Administration doesn't like to give out new numbers because one is supposed to last a lifetime and, again, creating a new SSN can lead to confusion and abuse for the victim. In fact, a new Social Security number makes the victim look more suspicious to creditors because the prior number will show up in the credit reporting database with an alert.

In my case, the credit grantors, such as banks, and the credit reporting agencies were suspicious of me even though the real criminal had already been arrested.  Further, as I say, itís still not unusual for companies and police departments to glibly state that we, the individuals, are not the victims.  The real victims, they still contend, are the credit grantors (such as the credit card companies), who may lose thousands of dollars.  Itís true, federal law protects us with regard to credit card fraud. But itís a tragic misperception to think the individual is not the real victim.  The credit grantors donít have to live day and night with calls from collection agencies, and learn about new accounts falsely opened in their names.  The banks donít fear personal financial ruin or endure the emotional impact of not knowing whatís going to happen next ó whether itíll be a bankruptcy filed under your name, a new luxury car charged to you, thousands of dollars borrowed by someone claiming to be you, a criminal record for a crime you didnít commit, or the very worst, terrorism committed in your name.   

After myriad hours of research, hundreds of frustrating phone conversations, and writing letters until my fingers ached and my mind reeled, I was able ó after about ten months ó to regain my pristine credit rating.  But the emotional toll was staggering. Ideally, victims shouldnít be burdened with this task ó but thatís the way it is.  Even with new identity theft insurance options, the victim still has work to do.  There are some companies now that offer ďfraud resolution services.Ē This is a better alternative than insurance if there is real help in writing letters and dealing with issues, but you as the victim still must spend many hours providing extensive information and dealing with companies to be sure everything is handled correctly.

In my own case, I was fortunate to have my legal training and my own business, so I could devote the necessary time to get my life back. Having researched all aspects of identity fraud, I became a ďreluctant expertĒó by necessity, not by choice!  Soon, I became an active advocate for other victims. I was vocal and testified before legislative hearings, and was asked to appear on several national and local television shows, and in magazines and newspaper articles.  I volunteered my time to testify before federal agencies and Congress because I believe itís critical to bring this insidious crime to the forefront, and to rally consumers to become aware and take action to protect themselves. 

I spoke with hundreds of victims of identity theft who contacted me after reading about me or seeing me on television.  I realized that sharing my journey and providing a proven method for restoring oneís identity would be healing for me as well as for others.  Millions of victims need help and coaching on how to move beyond this ďidentity crisis.Ē (One in five adults will become victims according to the FBI.) The Federal Trade Commission reported 9.9 million new victims just in 2003.

Fortunately, several non-profit consumer groups do fight for the rights of identity-theft victims: The Identity Theft Resource Center (www.idtheftcenter.org); The Privacy Rights Clearinghouse (www.privacyrights.org); and U.S. Public Interest Research Group (www.uspirg.org/calpirg); are three of the best non-profit organizations helping victims. Still, there was no step-by-step survival guide written for victims that included coaching them and giving them legal letters to deal with the agencies.  So, I originally created this book in 1998 with updates in 2000, which included form letters on diskette and details of what works and what doesnít. I shared information that I learned, created, and developed materials- so that your ordeal would be easier than mine.

Now, this Second Edition of the book From Victim To Victor: A Step-By-Step Guide For Ending The Nightmare of Identity Theft (with CD), will facilitate your efforts and ease your concerns. The cost of this book and CD is far less than what I would have to charge you for one letter! Please know that I consider it a privilege to save you time and money.

I encourage you to share the advice and suggestions in this book with your friends and family, in hopes that they can avoid, or at least be better prepared for, what weíve gone through. This book and CD will serve as a user-friendly coach, and allow you to be triumphant and redeem your financial security, your emotional stability, and your good reputation very soon.  Iíve shared my story with you, and as youíll see, I also include the stories of other victims.   

If youíre reading this, youíre probably currently going through, have gone through, or are worrying about your own identity-theft ordeal.  I know your fear, anger, and frustration; and I offer you this guide in hopes that you can transform yourself from "Victim to Victor" Ö just as many others have done. 

Rest assured you are not alone, and you will be victorious!

 

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