By Empish J. Thomas

Empish Thomas

I never realized how vulnerable a person could be until my ID was stolen. Most of my life I felt very safe and never really worried about my personal information being tampered with. But in 1996, all of that changed. I had just started losing my vision but could still see colors and read large print. I was working as a sale associate at Macy’s, and it was during the Christmas season. The store was very busy, and we had hired extra help. Well, one of those people we hired stole my wallet and two of my co-workers’ wallets. Up to that time, we would always leave our personal belongings in the storage room and never had a problem with anyone meddling with our things. We quickly contacted the store security department and filed police reports.

The Thief Went on a Major Shopping Spree

Soon after that, I began to get letters from merchants saying that my checks were bouncing. I would call them and let them know that it was identity theft, supplying the police report number if they needed it. I had already alerted my bank about the theft, and they had closed my account, but the checks were still out there and the thief was using them to make all kinds of purchases. She spent hundreds of dollars on groceries. She purchased designer clothes and expensive perfume. She purchased antiques. She purchased popular video games and the latest electronics. All of this on my checks and good credit! The police seemed to not be very helpful, and I had to contact them to give them updates on what she was doing. I was able to do this by getting copies of my credit report from Equifax. The report would list the merchants where she used my credit to make purchases. During this time, I was encouraged to get a fraud alert placed on my credit report. This fraud alert would flag any purchases and prompt the merchant to contact me for verification. I had that done, but one merchant did not contact me and let the purchase go through anyway. The merchant apologized, but I told them there is no need to because it was their $900 loss, not mine.

a woman putting a twenty dollar bill into a separate section in her wallet

The Thief Tried to Rent an Apartment

The most outlandish thing she did was fill out an application for an apartment using all my personal information. I found this out when the apartment complex manager called me to ask some questions about my application. I was in shock! I told her that I had not come in and filled out an application. She then began to read the application to me and all my personal information that was listed: name, current address, place of employment, work and home phone number, Social Security Number, etc. I was floored! I told her this was identity theft. I asked her would she be willing to talk to the local police department, and she was more than happy to comply. Unfortunately, when the apartment complex called the thief on her cell phone, she did not respond. They were hoping to lure her back to the complex where she could be arrested. Shortly after this incident I got a call from the police department telling me the the thief was finally caught and arrested. When I went to court for the hearing, I was amazed that she looked nothing like me! She had obtained my check book, state ID card, Social Security card, and other personal information, but we looked nothing alike. The only thing that we had in common was that we are both black women. I wrongly assumed that since all of the theft she was doing was in-person, she had to use my state ID and that people would see that we did not look alike, but sadly that was not the case.

What I Learned

That was my first occurrence with identity theft. I learned some valuable lessons from that experience such as don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet or have the number placed on your checks. I learned to file a police report and to contact the bank and credit card companies immediately. I also learned that you can place a fraud alert on your credit report, but it is not a complete guarantee that a thief will be stopped from making purchases. It is a very good idea to get a copy of your credit report each year to double check that everything is correct. Now, you can get one copy for free annually. If you experience fraud or identity theft, you can also get one copy for free. And of course, the most important thing I learned is not to leave my personal belongings unattended at work!

Identity Theft Strikes Again

After dealing with identity theft the first time, I thought I had put things in place to protect myself, but it happened again. This time by a friend, not a stranger.

It was around 13 years ago. I had lost all my vision by this time and was out with a girlfriend and her son. We wanted to go get pizza. We stopped at my bank’s ATM machine, so I could get cash for the meal. We went through the drive-thru where I handed her my ATM card and verbally gave her my pin number to complete the transaction. During that time, not all ATM machines were accessible.

the author standing at an ATM, hands on the keypad

The keypad had braille on it, but there was no way for a blind person to know what was on the screen without sighted help. She gave me back my card and cash, and we went to the restaurant.

Debit Card and Pin Number Stolen

While at the restaurant, I left my bag at the table with her teenage son while I went to the bathroom. I had no reason to be worried or concerned because I had known both of them for years, and we all went to church together. It was not until a few days later when I was balancing my checkbook that I discovered that $400 was gone from my checking account. Again, I was in shock! I asked the bank representative what happened, and she informed me that I had gone to an ATM machine and withdrawn the money; but I had not. I asked her the location of the ATM machine and then I knew immediately what happened. The machine’s location was near my girlfriend’s house, not mine. I immediately told the bank representative that this was fraud. She put a hold on my checking account but disagreed that it was fraud. I explained that I did do one transaction and had to get my friend to assist me, but the other transactions were at a different machine, and I was not responsible. I even told her that if you pull the video tape at the ATM machine you will not see my face because I did not do it. She said that it did not matter because I gave out my pin number and the bank would not consider it as fraud and that the theft was my fault. I further explained that I was blind and the ATM machine was not accessible. I asked her how is a blind person supposed to use the ATM machine if they can’t see the screen? She had no answer but still said it was not fraud. I was again floored! Here I go again?!

Son Arrested and Friend Tries to Help

I called my girlfriend and told her what happened, and she was very sad and angry. She told me to file charges and have her son arrested. We both knew that he had committed the crime. We figured that he took my card out of my bag while we went to the bathroom and that he must have remembered my pin number when I gave it to her. The next day, I called the police and the bank’s fraud department. The police picked him up, but the fraud department gave me all kinds of grief. They said the same thing as the bank representative; that it was not fraud because I gave out my pin number. I explained that the person I gave the pin number to did not steal my money, it was her son; but they said it did not matter. I even went into a branch location and got the same response. My friend also went to a branch location and explained what happened and got no help either.

Judge Rules but Still Problems with Bank

Fast-forward some months later. My friend, her son, another friend, and I are sitting in court waiting for the judge to rule on the case. He rules in my favor and gives my friend’s son a major tongue lashing, but since he is a juvenile and a first-time offender, there is no jail time. He has to take some classes, do community service, and see his probation officer. That part of the situation was over, but I was still battling with the bank on the ID theft/fraud part. They still refuse to see it as a crime. So a friend and I crafted a letter to the bank’s CEO. We included the police report, the court ruling, and a letter from my eye doctor all on official letterhead. We sent the letter certified mail and waited. Because the bank had closed my account and placed a hold on it, I was not able to open another account at any other bank. But, thank goodness, I had a credit union account that had already been opened before this incident took place and was able to use that account instead.

Some weeks later, I got a letter back from the CEO of the bank apologizing and feeling quite embarrassed that I had to go through all of this. He insured me that he would handle it and label the situation as fraud. He also took the hold off my account. Of course, after all of that stress, I opened an account at a totally different bank.

What I Learned the Second Time

After this second incident, I totally stopped using ATM machines. Even though they are accessible now, I seldom used them and still don’t feel totally comfortable. I will go to a store and make a purchase and request cash back if I need money. Typically, I can write a check over the amount of the purchase. I can also use my debit card and request various amounts of cash back. I also use my debit card more to track and record my transactions allowing me to have more control over my money. I do online banking now where I have complete access to my checking, saving, and credit card accounts. No more relying on others to assist me with financial transactions. I know that for some this might be hard because, as people who are blind or visually impaired, we do need help with banking transactions from time to time. It is hard to know who to trust and how to be secure all the time. There is no hard and fast rule on how to manage a situation like this except to be careful with who you trust, make every effort to handle as much of your financial matters as you can, and educate yourself on identity theft.

For more information on safely managing your money, read VisionAware’s Money Management Resources.