Dixie Fire victim now faces identity theft and he’s not alone
By Ken Donnell
Special to Plumas News
Of all the problems which face those of us made refugees by the Dixie Fire, a new one can been added to our list … identity theft. The need to re-establish our identity after being displaced means we have been required to give out a lot of personal information to a wide array off agencies and businesses. Sadly, identity thieves are aware of this new trove of personal data, which may not be perfectly protected.
A Greenville friend, Nancy Presser, reports that when she was in evacuation, and desperately searching for accommodations anywhere in the area, she stumbled across an apartment, in Chico, which was listed for rent by an online company, at a very good price. The responses to her email messages were very sympathetic and kindly, but emphasized the need for her to act quickly. She immediately provided critical personal information on her application in hopes of securing this “bargain apartment.”
Nancy was smart enough to ask a friend who lived in Chico to drive by the address of this rental unit, and her friend reported that “yes this location was for rent, but it is listed with a different company than the one you contacted.” Nancy immediately sensed the scam, and put a fraud warning on all of her credit information. She summed up her experience by saying, “These people knew I was desperate, and tried to prey upon that desperation.”
Identity theft hit home to me personally when I recently learned some unscrupulous person has stolen my personal information, and is now opening bank accounts using my identity. Given the nature of the information used to open these bank accounts, it is most likely that my personal information was stolen from a government or private disaster relief agency. I handed out all of my personal information to so many different agencies, including FEMA, CalOES, Plumas County, disaster relief organizations, post fire lot cleanup charities, lawyers, insurance adjusters, and more.
I have learned that such identity thieves try to use enough personal information about a victim in order to open small new accounts in that person’s name. These small accounts are eventually used “as ladders” to create larger accounts and acquire more personal information. Eventually, these accounts can secure significant lines of credit using the victim’s personal identity information.
In the worst case scenarios, the scammers will both create a huge false line of credit, and also gain access to the victim’s legitimate bank accounts, investment accounts, and credit card accounts. Then, with one deft stroke, the scammers completely drain the victim’s legitimate accounts, plus all of the false accounts. The victim is left with little or no liquid financial assets, a significant compromise to their credit rating, and a huge debt attached to their personal and legal identity.
Such is a description of the trajectory where my situation was headed until a fortunate benefit of living in a small, tight-knit community came to my rescue. Clerks at the local post office recognized my name and diverted statements from this false bank account to my P.O. box despite the actual address on these statements being “officially not deliverable.”
One of the tricks the scammers who stole my identity used was to start a bank account using accurate personal information for me, but with a mailing address that was jumbled together in a way to not be a valid mailing address. These scammers wanted the statements from this new false account to go to the “dead letter department.” If these statements had been left undelivered, it might have been months before I finally learned of this scam to steal my identity.
Once I did receive and opened these letters from the bank where the new false account had been opened, I realized what was happening, and immediately initiated a fraud alert with this bank. I am happy to report that this bank responded immediately to address all issues related to this scam, and are working with me to prevent more abuse of my personal information from their bank, and other financial institutions.
I also took the extra step to sign on with an online credit protection service which will permit me to monitor use of my personal information anytime a scammer tries to use this information for an online credit application. I decided that the fees charged to me are worth the security of knowing that I can better protect my personal information, credit rating, and financial assets.
It is possible to shut down access to one’s credit, for free, and without hiring a such a service as I have done. This is what Nancy Presser did, and anyone can do so by contacting and completing an online fraud notification with these credit reporting companies — Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion.
Nancy is also an individual disaster case manager for Plumas Rural Services (PRS), and she reports that a PRS case manager can assist fire refugees with identity theft issues, including possible referral to Legal Services of Northern California. While it is probably best to work through one’s PRS case manager, seniors and low income residents can also contact Legal Services of Northern California directly at 800.660.3458, or online at [email protected]
Clearly, there are unscrupulous people who believe that while a person is “on their knees” is the best time to beat them down a little further. That is how I feel at present. Just a little more abuse heaped on top of the pain. I know there are many such Dixie Fire refugees who are feeling equally abused in one way or another. Sadly, this is our present fate.
But I do very much thank the local post office for helping me to uncover this scam, and for bankers who immediately addressed my identity theft to minimize the damage done. I hope all of my fellow Plumas friends who were similarly displaced by the Dixie Fire, or anyone who has applied for disaster assistance will pay close attention to their personal information, their credit status, and access to their financial accounts. It appears disaster survivors are a popular target for identity thieves, and we need to take extra measure to protect ourselves during this period of our great vulnerability.