You can forgive Debra Carlson for feeling frustrated and angry and wondering what consumer credit outrage is around the next corner. Since early this year, an identity thief has targeted her. That has cost Carlson no small amount of lost sleep and angst.
Name a bank or store-issued credit card and it’s likely the evildoer has applied for it using Carlson’s name, birth date and other identifying information. The number of card applications totals more than 40 so far, she said. The thief also has applied for five bank loans in Carlson’s name.
He or she also unsuccessfully sought a second mortgage on the Roanoke County home that Carlson, 58, shares with her husband, David, a former police officer who’s chief of security at Hollins University.
“I don’t want anyone else to go through this,” Carlson told me. “It’s absolutely dreadful.”
She’s not the only victim. Roanoke County police Det. Betsy VanPatten has been investigating the fraud against Carlson. Police have identified two other victims going through the same thing, VanPatten told me. In all, three law enforcement agencies are working on the investigation, though VanPatten declined to identify the others.
“The pain, the suffering and all the time [Carlson’s] had to put into this is very extensive,” VanPatten said. “It is very, very serious. We have three separate victims with all the same potential impact.”
Nobody has been charged, and, so far, Carlson has foiled most of the scammer’s efforts. The amount of fraud carried out in her name totals less than $1,400 at local branches of two department stores. Nobody holds Carlson responsible for that, but she said her credit score has taken a hit.
The onslaught of phony credit applications started more than six months ago. Before that, “my credit score was almost up to 800,” Carlson told me. Among the credit bureaus, a score of 800 or higher is considered “excellent.” “Now it’s down in the low 700s,” Carlson added. The bureaus consider 700 to be “good.”
“The problem is, [the credit applications are] being reported to credit agencies,” VanPatten said. With applications alone, “you’re still getting hits on your credit.”
Carlson said her identity theft nightmare began one morning late in February, when her home telephone rang. The caller claimed to be an American Express representative.
“They said somebody had applied for a card using all of my information,” Carlson told me. “I replied, ‘All of my information, meaning what?’ ”
The answer was her Social Security number, date of birth, first and last name and email and street addresses.
Carlson told the caller she had not applied for the company’s credit card. The rep said American Express’ fraud department would be informed.
A couple hours later, Carlson’s phone rang again.
“This was someone from a different kind of American Express — I think it was [Delta] Skymiles,” Carlson said. She heard the same story as before on the phone. Again, she replied that she hadn’t applied for the card.
“Then a day went by,” Carlson said, “and I started getting all these responses by email, saying, ‘Thank you for applying to Kohl’s, to Belk, etc.’ I was getting four to five emails every day.”
She said the emails kept her up for most of every night in March in April. She would take careful notes of the companies that emailed her to confirm her applications. She estimates that at most she slept “a couple hours each night” during those two months.
“This is not an exaggeration, please don’t think that it is,” she told me. “I would stay up every night.”
Then she’d be on the phone much of the next day.
“I must have made anywhere from five to eight, sometimes 10 calls a day” to bank and credit card company fraud departments, Carlson said.
The thief applied for loans with Credit One Bank, Lendingpoint LLC, Lendingclub Bank, Affirm Inc. and Sofi Lending Corporation, Carlson said.
“My credit report looks like a war zone,” Carlson said.
There are some odd wrinkles to this scam that Carlson cannot explain.
First, she doesn’t know how the identify thief got hold of her personal information, including the name of her home mortgage issuer. She suspects it might have been through a virus or hack of her home computer.
Second, the thief apparently never got his or her hands on the cards sought in Carlson’s name. Some arrived in the mail. Others Carlson managed to stop before they were issued.
A third wrinkle: Somehow, Carlson added, the thief used an account established in Carlson’s name at Kohl’s to charge merchandise worth about $700. Carlson thought that was odd because an unsolicited Kohl’s card arrived in her mail one day and the thief never had it. Another transaction at Macy’s was worth slightly less than $700, Carlson said.
She has contacted the office of Del. Chris Head, R-Botetourt, and requested he sponsor legislation in the next General Assembly session that could help prevent the kind of fraud Carlson has experienced.
One law Carlson would like enacted would require anyone who applies for credit online to fax or email a driver’s license image to the credit issuer. Another would forbid retail establishments from allowing credit card purchases without a credit card in hand.
I talked with Head about those ideas Wednesday. Though he sounded highly sympathetic to Carlson’s plight, he doubts such legislation would work.
Most credit card issuers aren’t based in Virginia, Head noted. For that reason, the legislature cannot mandate those companies require faxed or emailed driver’s license images from online applicants, he said. “If no one could charge anything without presenting the card to be charged, that would eliminate e-commerce, Apple Pay” and other programs in current use, Head said.
“If she has any other ideas for anything we can do at a state level to curtail this, I’m interested,” Head added.
As you might imagine, Carlson has learned a few identity theft-fighting tricks along the way. She shared these with me:
- Once you are aware of the fraud, report it to your credit card or bank fraud department. This way you will not be responsible for charges and it will not stay on your credit.
- Contact all three credit bureaus (Experian, Equifax and TransUnion) and have a credit freeze and identity theft alert put on your credit report so that no more cards get approved.
- Report identity theft to the Federal Trade Commission as soon as you become aware of it.
- Through the Internal Revenue Service, complete a Form 14039 so that no one can fraudulently claim your taxes.
- Report identity theft to your local police department.