Fraud finds its way in the front door--and to Chinaby Eric Ringham, Minnesota Public Radio
Each year about 15 million U.S. residents become victims of identity theft. The most common kind of identity theft is credit card fraud. It might not seem like something to worry about - until it happens to you, as commentary editor Eric Ringham found out.
St. Paul, Minn. — When junk mail started arriving by parcel post, I should have smelled a rat.
A white box, plastered with bar codes, was waiting inside my storm door one day when I got home from work. The 8-inch box held a 3-inch bottle of pills labeled "Acai Berry Detox" and a brochure that explained how to use the pills to burn fat. It informed me that "experts" considered the Acai berry to have "the best nutritional value of any fruit on earth."
Junk mail, I thought. Discard - though in my house, "discard" means "leave on top of the piano for a few weeks."
Two days later, an identical box arrived. This one I didn't even open, but just set on the piano with the first. Wow, I thought. More magic weight-loss pills. Somebody must think I'm a sucker, and a fat one, besides.
Little did I know.
A week or so went by, and then came a voice mail: "This is Robert calling from Cheap Tickets.com. This is in regards to a booking that was made on the Web site today."
I was expecting a bill for airfare. My daughter had a trip coming up, but it turned out Robert wasn't calling about Madeleine's flight from Minneapolis to Los Angeles. He was calling about He Jun's flight from Hangzhou to Dalian--in China.
Cheap Tickets.com spotted the purchase as a likely fraud and voided the sale. Robert suggested I call Visa and suspend my credit card. Which I did reluctantly, because I'd used that card for years.
It seemed more likely that I had screwed up, somehow, than that someone had actually stolen my identity. Had I ordered a domestic air ticket in China and forgotten about it?
If so, I'd forgotten more than that. A Visa rep walked me back through several days of purchases: Three travel insurance policies on Thursday, $1,200 worth of data processing and sports-related expenses on Wednesday, a telecommunications charge of $800 and another air fare of a hundred-some dollars on Tuesday.
Finally, we backtracked all the way to an inconsequential little purchase that I didn't recognize and might never have noticed: a $1.99, on Christmas Eve, for something called Super Colon Cleanse.
"What's that?" I asked.
"I don't know," said the Visa rep. "Something to ... cleanse your colon?"
Ah. I bet it involves Acai berries.
The lesson came cheap at the price: Anytime something unexpected lands in my mailbox, it might be a thief sticking his foot in my door. However he got my credit card number, he used it to buy something small - and learned that the number matched an active account, one whose owner wasn't paying careful attention. Then he went to town, or to Dalian, on me.
Visa quashed the charges and issued me a new card. I'm not supposed to use the old one anymore, but I do. It makes a good ice scraper.
- Morning Edition, 03/10/2010, 8:40 a.m.