Journalist for Life

Who Dat claiming to be me?

Going through the mail recently, an envelope caused me anxiety. The outside merely carried the logo and some ad copy for AT&T, but that’s now a name that grabs my attention, and not in a good way.

The telecommunications giant did nothing to harm me. On the contrary, both of us were victims of what a detective told me is America’s fastest-growing crime: identity theft.

I became aware of my involvement when I got a phone call in early November from the bank that had issued my MasterCard. The bank staffer identified herself as being with its security department and asked, “Mr. Jenkins, did you try to purchase $560 worth of men’s clothing today in Cape Town, South Africa?’

I almost laughed at the notion that I had simultaneously been in Florida, where the bank was calling me, and 7,850 miles away in Cape Town. But I was intrigued.

“This purchase was not approved because it did not match your buying history,’’ the employee continued.

I felt relief, until she added, “Though a card was swiped.’’

Yikes! My own card was in my wallet. So the bank created a new account number for me, and I cut up my old card.

In mid-December, I found in my mail three identical envelopes splashed with orange ink announcing, “Welcome to AT&T!’’

Silly of them to send me identical promotions, I thought. Then I opened them and saw that three new wireless lines had been opened in my name and address; these were estimated first bills, for phone service and two BlackBerry accounts.

The total I apparently would owe: $563.66.

I saw all three lines had been opened the same day – when I had been on a cruise ship off Mexico. I climbed a fairly easy phone tree for AT&T customer service and got a fraud department representative.

He believed my protest and soon gave me the name of a Texas company, Let’s Talk, that had taken the order and express-shipped the devices. He said he would start a fraud investigation.

I called Let’s Talk. This customer service agent seemed bewildered that someone had used my credit card to get BlackBerrys and a cellphone shipped – not to my home address but to one more than 200 miles away. She, too, promised to open an investigation.

Then came the worst surprise: A bill from for $852.79, from an online bank, BillMeLater. After a few phone calls I learned it had approved that amount to be paid to Apple’s online store for three iPods. An Apple rep told me these also were shipped to an address more than 200 miles from the address the buyer had given as the billing address. But to confirm his identity, this thief had provided my DOB and Social Security number.

I called my police department in early January, providing details of these events to Det. Randy Adams. It was she who told me identity theft is the nation’s fastest-growing crime.

But how did the thieves get my confidential data? The simplest way, Adams explained, was to bribe restaurant waiters to carry a small electronic reader; when you give your credit card to pay a check, the waiter also slides the card through this reader. That magnetic strip on the back of the card includes much of your data, which is then stored in the reader.

The ID thief shows up, downloads the chip’s memory and pays the waiter. The thieves have card-makers and also sell information to colleagues. A Wall Street Journal article recently reported security exports believe the U.S. has more than 300 professional computer-hacking rings stealing identity information, but that Chinese hackers are hurrying to catch up.

Ultimately I spoke with a detective in the town where the BlackBerrys were delivered. She explained that thieves locate vacant residences – typically foreclosed properties – and order the merchandise be delivered there.

Monitoring the shipper’s online tracking number, the thief sees his package has been picked up locally. He drives to that location, waits for the delivery truck, then intercepts the driver for the package without having to open the front door.

As the truck drives off, so does the thief.

This detective said the Blackberrys had been delivered to a foreclosed-on, vacant, house.

And she echoed what my local detective had told me: “I don’t hold out the promise that anyone will be caught – they grab the stuff and re-sell, sometimes at flea markets, sometimes on eBay.’’

I have also filed a fraud claim with the FTC and notified the three national credit bureaus, which will monitor suspicious charges and alert merchants, for up to 7 1/2 years.

As for that recent envelope from AT&T? It said the previous balance I owed was $563.66 – the original total for the three fraudulent lines – and that “adjustments to the previous balance’’ meant I owed nothing.

But now I hesitate to dump my cellphone, with service by another provider, to get an IPhone. I fear I’ll have to climb more phone trees again to explain that yes, it really is ME who wants the iPhone.

End Bag, the new book from Bob Jenkins, collects his best stories from 19 years as travel editor. Available now on View a sample at Read more about End Bag here.

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