June 23

A Brush with Identity Theft

You don’t mess with a Texan’s pickup truck, says BYU finance professor Andrew Holmes. So, needless to say, back in the 90s when someone broke into his truck, stole his checkbook, and started writing fraudulent checks in his name, he was pretty upset.

“It made me angry,” Holmes says. “I wanted to lash out at somebody, and there was nobody to lash out at.”

Holmes, Andrew 07 1211-07 Marriott School Portraits November 15, 2012 Photo by Elisa T. Adamson/BYU © BYU PHOTO 2012 All Rights Reserved photo@byu.edu  (801)422-7322

Andrew Holmes

Holmes found himself a Texan with a desecrated  truck—and a victim of identity theft, which today affects up to 15 million Americans each year. His stolen checkbook had about a dozen checks left in it, and the thief printed up a counterfeit ID with Holmes’s name and address. Holmes was alerted to the fraud early on thanks to a sharp grocery store clerk.

“I got a call from a grocery store security officer,” Holmes recounts. “I was raising teenagers at the time, and at first I thought, ‘oh what have my kids done now?’ Well it wasn’t my kids this time,” he jokes. It turned out that someone at the store had written a check, and when he slapped down the fraudulent ID, the clerk sensed something fishy about it. When the thief was questioned, he snatched the ID and ran, abandoning the check and merchandise.

Holmes immediately called his bank and alerted the police—both crucial first steps if your identity has been stolen, he advises. Every merchant swindled in your name will want a police report, so it’s good to have one handy. Holmes is grateful he found out early on about the theft.

“Somebody was well-trained at the grocery store,” he says. “Unfortunately, there was a bunch of other people who weren’t.”

Over the next three or four months, Holmes kept receiving complaints about bounced checks from $2.86 to about  $2,500. “One of the biggest purchases was for patio furniture,” he says. “They evidently bought themselves some very nice patio furniture.” Holmes hoped that after the thief ran out of checks the headache would blow over.

“But the identity thief was smarter than I thought,” he says. “When they wrote out the dozen checks, they got an active account number from a different bank and printed up more checks with my name and address.”

Holmes estimates that he spent about fifty to one hundred hours dealing with angry merchants and banks, sending them police reports and affidavits. “I wasn’t legally responsible for the lost money,” he says, “but my name and address were on the checks, and they came to me often with the attitude that I should make good on that bad check. The merchants were out a couple thousand dollars and they are mad because they wanted to know what happened to their money.”

Identity thieves tend to milk a name for a few months or years and then find another, not wanting to leave too long of a paper trail. Holmes’s thief eventually dropped his name and likely moved on, but to Holmes’s knowledge hasn’t been caught. Holmes counts himself lucky that his ordeal lasted only a few months—some victims can spend years trying to clear their names.

“It can be somewhere between bad and extremely terrible, and I was on the lighter end of that, I’m happy to report,” he says. “If they got my social security number, it would have been terrible.”

Today Holmes says he tends to be more nervous about giving out personal information and guards it carefully, always requesting alternatives to providing his social security number when it’s requested.

“This is not something you want to deal with,” he says. “Take care of your information, keep your checkbook safe, and  keep your social security number under wraps.”

Want to learn how to keep your own personal information safe from would-be identity thieves in the digital age? Check out “Mistaken Identity” in the summer issue of Marriott Alumni Magazine for more tips and stats about preventing identity theft.