The real-life story of an identity theft victim and what she did about it

I have a friend, let’s call her Mandy.  Mandy is an identity theft victim.  Mandy is not her real name because this is a private story and she wants to maintain her privacy.  She’s willing to share it, anonymously, because she read “Bullseye Breach” and she knows what I do for a living.  She’s hopeful that her story might help others in a similar situation.

For anyone who still thinks the law enforcement bureaucracy will help you when you’ve been violated in this manner, Mandy’s story will change your mind.  And hopefully this deeply personal story will help persuade you that IT security is important and you need to take it seriously.

I am privileged to post Mandy’s story, in her own words.

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Living in a nice neighborhood can give you a false sense of security. Maybe you know most of your neighbors and don’t think twice about leaving your windows open all day to let in cool air.  Maybe you don’t even lock your doors at night.

I’ve never been that trusting. I grew up in a South Florida neighborhood where it seemed like we were receiving flyers on a weekly basis about break-ins.

They left an impression on me. Once out on my own, I always made sure my doors and windows were locked, but turns out that didn’t matter.

On the morning of Nov. 7, 2005, someone pried open a locked window and got into my home anyway. My husband and I returned from work around the same time that evening to find our home ransacked.

The thief or thieves must have spent a long time inside because everything, and I do mean everything, that was both portable and valuable was gone. Every room in the house had been gone through.

Missing were thousands of dollars worth of electronics, including a laptop computer that contained personal information and a video camera with precious video of my son inside; all of our checkbooks and bills that had been written out but not yet sent; a set of extra keys to our house and one of the cars; and the coin collection I had been building since I was a kid.

May sound hard to believe, but it wouldn’t have been so bad if that was all that had disappeared. What’s ten times more devastating is the fact that my family also fell victim that day to what has become the number one crime in America — identity theft.

Like so many people I know, we had our social security cards and birth certificates in a fire box under the bed. The thief found the key to the box in my underwear drawer and cleaned it out.

I feel stupid for having left the key in such an obvious place, but my husband has convinced me that if they hadn’t found the key, the thieves would have just taken the whole box anyway. I should have hidden it better.

We spent all of November and December worrying about how our information was going to be used, but nothing bad happened. Then the other shoe dropped the night of January 11th.

Because of the fraud alert we put up on our credit reports after the break-in, someone from Dell Computer called our house around 10 o’clock that night. He said he had J. on the other line and was calling to confirm his identity.

My husband was not the man on the line with Dell. We were being violated again.

After hanging up with Dell, we ran our credit report and found out that a few days earlier, someone had tried to secure a home mortgage in our name.

When I got to work the next morning, I looked up our client contact at one of the credit bureaus, called her up and started asking a lot of questions. She couldn’t answer all of them, so she put me in touch with Kevin Barrows, the former FBI agent who is credited with busting up one of the country’s largest identity theft operations in 2002.

He told me, “Because you put the fraud alert up and filed a police report, you will not be liable for anything the identity thief does; but at the same time, you do need to get his inquiries and the false addresses he gave off your credit report as quickly as possible.”

That night, I embarked on another round of letter writing. The next morning it was off to the post office again.

Early on in the process, I had read an article that recommended all communications with the credit bureaus be sent certified with return-receipt. I’ve spent close to $100 sending letters that way so far.

That’s in addition to the thousands of dollars spent installing an alarm system, fixing our broken window, replacing a damaged sliding glass door; rekeying our house and car; replacing stolen documents; etc. Some, but not all of our losses, were covered by insurance.

Just when we thought we had the situation under control, my husband and I started getting calls from credit card companies calling to confirm our identity because of the fraud alert on our accounts. One after another… I lost count around 30… We would tell the people on the other line that no we did not authorize the opening of an account.

Right away after the calls started coming in, I pulled our credit reports again and found mention of multiple inquiries made by creditors we had never heard of, plus a mysterious address in Illinois added to both mine and my husband’s accounts. I called the police department in that city to report that someone at that address was fraudulently using my address to try and establish credit.

Believe it or not, the detective I spoke with actually told me they had received similar reports from others about that exact address, but there was nothing they could do because it was a federal crime. I was referred to the Post Master General, I presume because the thieves wanted to get credit cards fraudulently sent to them through the mail.

The person I spoke with took down my information and referred me to the FBI. The agent I spoke with at the FBI told me there are too many cases like mine for them to pursue all of them. They referred me back to the local police dept in the jurisdiction where the theft happened. My hometown police department basically said, “Sorry, there is nothing we can do about a crime being committed across state lines.”

I am sharing my story in hopes that I can help make the recovery process easier for someone else.

Here are the steps I’ve taken since the day of the break-in:

  1. Called the police to file a report. (This is a critical step. You will need that report in order to get extended fraud alerts issued).
  2. Called the credit bureaus. (Work your way through the automated menus until you find the option to get a fraud alert issued. Experian, Equifax and TransUnion are required to share information with each other, but to give yourself peace of mind, contact all three anyway. I did.)Equifax: 1-800-525-6285; www.equifax.com; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742); www.experian.com; P.O. Box 9532, Allen, TX 75013

    TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289; www.transunion.com; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790

  3.  Called the banks to get all of my accounts frozen immediately after discovering the theft. Went into the branches I do business with the morning after the break-in to get new account numbers issued; and also secured a safe deposit box to store personal information in from now on.
  4. Cancelled all of my credit cards. The thieves only made off with the two they found in the fire box, but I have no way of knowing if they went through my files to get other numbers too.
  5. Called all my creditors to see which ones had received payment on my accounts. Sent new checks with a letter of explanation for the lack of a stub to the others.
  6. Had my mail stopped so the thief couldn’t return to the house and steal our mail. Went to the post office daily for over a month until I was able to find, purchase and install a secure mailbox.
  7. Went to the Department of Motor vehicles to get new driver’s licenses issued with new numbers. We have no way of knowing if the thieves came across our old numbers when they went through our file cabinet.
  8. Went to the Social Security office to request new copies of our cards.
  9. Filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), which shares information about identity theft with law enforcement agencies across the country.You can file a complaint with the FTC using the online complaint form at www.ftc.gov; or call the FTC’s Identity Theft Hotline, toll-free: (877) ID-THEFT (438-4338); or write Identity Theft Clearinghouse, Federal Trade Commission, 600 Pennsylvania Avenue, NW, Washington, DC 20580.
  10. Sent letters to the Department of Vital Statistics in the three states in which our family members were born to get new certified birth certificates. Also had to get a new copy of our marriage certificate.
  11. Once things settled down, called a few alarm companies, took bids, then hired one to install a home burglar alarm for us.
  12. After receiving confirmation of the initial fraud alerts from the three credit bureaus in the mail, sent in letters requesting a 7-year extended alert along with a copy of my police report.
  13. Signed up for 3-in-1 credit monitoring so I’ll know instantly the next time someone fraudulently applies for credit in our name.

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If anyone reading this wants to contact Mandy, just contact me and I’ll work on setting it up.

(First published on my Infrasupport website.  I backdated here to match the original posting date.)

How can organizations avoid sensational data breach headlines?

I was in a Barnes and Noble bookstore a few days go, pitching my new book, “Bullseye Breach,” to one of the folks working behind the counter.  I know all the big decisions are always made at corporate headquarters, but nobody invited me to corporate headquarters and I have to start somewhere.  So I started at this store.

While pitching for all I was worth, a lady who said she works at the Target Corporation Credit Department here in the Twin Cities walked up to the counter.  Many have suggested I patterned my fiction story in “Bullseye Breach” after the real world Target breach – I’ll leave that for readers to judge.  I had a copy of my book with me and she seemed interested.  Which helped my ego tremendously.  Those million book sales start with the first one.

We talked for a while and she said, “It’s a shame we’re all so vulnerable.  No matter how big you are, no matter how much you’re loved in the community, no matter how much good you do, a group of crooks can still break in over the Internet and do this to you.”

That triggered a diatribe from me about believing press releases and people who should have known better not doing their jobs.  I said lots of other things, most of it politically incorrect.  To my surprise, she thanked me for being passionate about this topic and even insisted on buying the copy of my book I had with me on the spot.  I walked away dumbfounded and grateful.

That encounter put a whole series of thoughts in motion.  Since I insisted that organizations can protect themselves, that being a victim to cybercrime is not inevitable, what would I do if somebody actually invited me to corporate headquarters to provide advice and counsel to the CIO?

So here is the advice I would offer.

First is topology.  Retailers, isolate your Point of Sale systems from the rest of your network and keep a whitelist for where they can interact.

Set up automation to notify the right people if those POS systems try to interact with anything outside that whitelist.  Other industries may have similar issues, but retail POS systems are special because untrained store clerks interact with them and they interact with payment processors across the Internet.  Their interactions with the internal network and the rest of the world need to be strictly regulated and monitored.  If the topology had been right, and the right people heeded the warnings, none of the sensational data breach headlines we’ve read about recently would have happened.

That leads to diligence.  No matter what technology is in place, there is no substitute for human diligence.  People are and always will be the last and best line of defense against attack.  Train end users to stay away from the wrong websites and not to fall prey to phishing schemes.  Run drills.  Do probes.  Test often and discuss results.

But even with the best diligence and awareness training and drills, a company with 1000 employees means 1000 potential attack vectors.  Inbound spam filtering and outbound web filtering can help, but sooner or later, somebody will visit the wrong website or click on the wrong email attachment.  That’s why the right people need to pay attention to the inevitable warning signs and take action when warranted.

Which leads to sharing.  This is counter-intuitive, but the best way to defend against attack is to share how all the defenses work.  In detail.

This comment to a Brian Krebs blog post deconstructing the 2014 Sally Beauty breach is a great example.  It was a gutsy call for Blake Curlovic to publicly share the detailed information about this breach, both in the Krebs article and in subsequent comments, and the information he shared will be invaluable to future IT Departments fighting bad guys.

In cryptography, the algorithms are public.  Everyone knows them.  That’s why we have strong cryptography today – the surviving algorithms have all been peer and public reviewed, attacked, and strengthened.  CIOs should operate similarly.  Openly discuss security measures, expose them to public and peer review, conduct public post mortem incident reviews, publish the results, and adjust the methods where necessary.

Bad guys are already reviewing, discussing, and probing security in the shadows.  Bad guys have a whole supply chain dedicated to improving their ability to plunder, complete with discussion forums and specialists in all sorts of dark endeavors.  The bad guys have unlimited time and creativity and the good guys are out gunned and out manned.

Against such an adversary, what CIO in their right mind would want to stand alone?

This doesn’t mean CIOs should call press conferences to brag about the latest security tool.  But CIOs should be visible at conferences and should contribute keynotes and other presentations in a running dialog to help continuously improve the state of the art.  They should also be engaged in online forums discussing and refining the latest ideas.  And when it makes sense to appear in front of the written and TV press, they should take the lead and use the forum to educate the public.

Smart good guys should join forces out in the open for the common good.  Contribute to and profit from a thriving marketplace of good ideas and everyone wins.

(Originally published on my Infrasupport website, May 13, 2015.  I backdated here to match the original posting.)