Let’s see some ID
North Chico family relates an ID theft nightmare
In the old days, if you wanted to steal other people’s money from Wells Fargo, you had to sit in the bushes with a shotgun and wait for the stagecoach to come by. These days, it’s a lot easier.
Ask Tracy and Lucie Woolery. The north Chico couple, who operate two small businesses from their home, recently fell victim to the fastest-growing crime in America—identity theft. Anyone with a bank account is vulnerable, and even though there is more publicity about the issue than ever before, identity theft remains a low-risk and low-effort venture for criminals and a no-win nightmare for victims.
The Woolerys learned they had been taken advantage of in January, when checks they had written began to bounce. Knowing it was a mistake, they called their bank, Wells Fargo, and thus began a frustrating and time-consuming journey through the bowels of the corporate beast otherwise known as the American banking system.
“Don’t be asleep at the wheel, especially with a big bank,” Lucie warned, “Because they don’t give a gnat’s patoot about you.”
The banks wouldn’t confirm what happened, but according to the Woolerys, Bank of America allowed a San Jose man to pay his BofA loan bills over the phone with money taken out of the Woolerys’ Wells Fargo account. The only ID the man had to provide was Lucie’s Social Security number, the Woolerys say, and suddenly they were out close to $2,000 without any notification. How BofA was able to access a Wells Fargo account is unclear, and the Woolerys say the banks won’t tell them either, citing—get this—privacy rules.
“They cite the privacy law, but they don’t follow it,” Tracy said. “They’ve turned me into a lending institution against my will.”
The banks at first acknowledged their error, and with a fraud report and a series of phone calls the Woolerys were able to recoup about half of what was stolen from them. However, the banks still charged them bounced-check fees, and their credit rating has taken a hit. When the Woolerys went back through their records and found another fraudulent charge, the manager of their local bank branch told them the matter had been referred to the corporate office, so no one locally was able to discuss their case with them. The corporate office won’t return their calls.
Prior to this, the bank had already given out the name, address, Social Security number, and phone number of the man who allegedly took the Woolerys’ money. But no one at that home speaks English, so the Woolerys weren’t able to talk to him. There is apparently no law enforcement agency willing to investigate the case (the Woolerys live on county land under the protection of the short-staffed and underfunded Butte County Sheriff’s Office), and no lawyer will take their case because, as Tracy said he was told, “The banks just eat them up in delays and court costs.”
Lucie said the ordeal has cost her time, energy and health. In the first 10 days of dealing with the problem, she got less than six hours of actual work done. Her voice was raw from screaming and crying into her phone when nameless bureaucrats told her there was nothing they could do. Now her phone is dented from hanging up on people in disgust, and she has taken to keeping a small paper sack on her desk for when she begins to hyperventilate.
What’s worse, the couple said they had found out there was a problem with Lucie’s Social Security number five years ago, and were told by Wells Fargo that the problem would be fixed immediately. It never was.
What can one do to protect against identity theft? Not much, apparently. Some security experts say it’s important to safeguard one’s mail and never carry a Social Security card in one’s wallet in case it gets stolen. There are also companies that offer identity theft insurance and can watch over their clients’ accounts in order to catch any potential ID theft early. Carefully watching bank statements is also a good idea.
But with banks and credit card companies becoming increasingly vulnerable to data theft while simultaneously lobbying legislators against passing comprehensive data privacy laws, the average consumer is getting, for lack of a better term, screwed.
“It’s to the point where [hiding money in] the mattress is looking pretty good," Tracy said.