Northampton couple learns the hard way the anguish of identity theft
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NORTHAMPTON — David Lalima always thought identity theft happened to other people. But after a month of tracking down and refuting tens of thousands of dollars of fraudulent charges, as well as unauthorized access to a line of credit, he knows he’s as vulnerable as anyone.
“You think things never happen to you,” he said. “They happened to us and they were pretty profound.”
More and more people are unwittingly granting access to personal and banking information to thieves and scam artists. “It’s the new robbery,” said Northampton Police Chief Russell P. Sienkiewicz. “It’s the best way to steal from people and it’s hard to get caught.”
Lalima, 68, said he and his wife Georgie Thomas, 64, were at their winter home in Florida in May when they had their first inkling that something was wrong.
On May 9, Lalima said a credit card in his wife’s name was declined at a department store in Florida.
He said there were usually only relatively small amounts charged to the card, typically between $50 and $100. Payments on the account were made regularly through online automatic transfers, so they had no reason to believe they exceeded their limit.
When the couple contacted their credit card company, they learned someone had assumed the role of the account holder and had made about $20,000 worth of purchases.
In March, Lalima said, whoever had gotten access to the account changed the mailing address where the paper statements for the account were sent — an apparent attempt to avoid scrutiny for as long as possible.
Once the thieves had access to the account, Lalima said they ordered a new card and changed the security password and account holder’s identifying information.
The new mailing address directed statements to Brooklyn, N.Y. Purchases were tracked to a shopping mall in New Jersey, including several from a Louis Vuitton store.
Because the Lalimas set up an automatic online payment from a bank account for the credit card, they were nearly saddled with a $20,000 withdrawal because the full balance due is paid every month.
Lalima said the bank told him that the only reason the automatic payment didn’t go through was because there was not $20,000 in the account to cover it. The couple also were shocked to see two payments of $7,000 and $9,000 to the hacked credit card account, which they never made, Lalima said.
Lalima said the thieves apparently gained access to another account and were using it to make payments to the credit card account to keep it valid for as long as possible.
Proof of identity
Lalima said it was difficult convincing the credit card company that he and his wife were who they claimed to be.
It wasn’t just that the password and other identifying information on his wife’s account had changed. With one address in Northampton, another in Florida, a new mailing address in Brooklyn and suspicious purchases made in New Jersey, personnel at the credit card company kept requesting more and more background information to ensure they were speaking to the right people.
Lalima said he had not considered keeping his credit card company and his bank abreast of his travel schedule or providing his Florida phone number.
Lalima said any attempts made to contact the couple by telephone during winter and early spring would have gone to a number in Northampton that is shut down during those months.
After about two weeks of calls to the credit card company — which eventually acknowledged the fraudulent purchases and cleared the account — Lalima and his wife thought the matter was behind them.
Then came a phone call from Lalima’s bank in Northampton on May 19 asking if he had recently authorized a pair of $10,000 electronic transfers from an equity line of credit.
The first withdrawal was authorized. But when a second was requested a day later, bank security became suspicious and decided to contact Lalima.
Lalima suspects he became a victim in another aspect of the same scam by having his account leeched to pay off a credit card or other line of credit in order to keep making purchases.
Lalima said he is convinced identity thieves are far better at pulling off these types of crimes than those in a position to stop them are at preventing them.
“It’s so easy for them, it’s not funny,” he said.
Lalima said he doesn’t know how he and his wife made themselves vulnerable to having their sensitive information stolen and used.
More confusing, he said, is what kind of legal action can be taken or which authorities to contact.
Because the situation spans at least four states, he was not sure who would have jurisdiction or where to start to alert authorities.
He contacted Northampton police last week after learning of the unauthorized bank transfer.
Contacting local authorities is a proper first step in registering a complaint, said Robert Harrison, a forensic investigator and fraud examiner for the Northwestern district attorney’s office.
Harrison said his office normally does not work on individual cases of fraud or identity theft because they are considered consumer protection issues and are usually handled by the state attorney general’s office.
The district attorney’s office will get involved if a case is referred through police or the attorney general’s office, Harrison said.
One method to help prevent unauthorized access to credit accounts or use of personal data is to register information with a credit reporting agency that provides fraud alerts when suspicious activity is detected.
Even as his bank accounts and credit rating start to recover from the apparent fraud, Lalima is left wondering what other personal information has the potential to be abused. He said he’s now keeping a much more diligent watch on his accounts.
Sienkiewicz said the Northampton Police Department gets near-daily calls about some kind of fraud attempt or scam. People receiving fraudulent rebate checks in the mail, suspicious phone calls seeking personal information and other scams are prevalent throughout the area, he said.
“There are so many variations, it blows your mind,” Sienkiewicz said.
Sienkiewicz said while those types of scams are typical, the one Lalima and his wife were apparently victimized by sounds more elaborate.
Sienkiewicz said one tactic is to send an unsuspecting person a check that looks valid. Once a person deposits it, the sender has the name of the victim’s bank, the account and routing numbers and a copy of their signature. That may be more than a clever thief needs to wreak havoc on someone’s credit and bank account.
Sienkiewicz said scammers often get away with it because they are already hard to track down due to the use of a false identities. Often credit card companies are more willing to close accounts and absorb outstanding debt than to take the time and effort to pursue criminal charges.
If people are not vigilant about monitoring their accounts, thieves and scammers can take the time between statements to rack up huge debt in the name of a victim.
“Thirty days is a long time between statements,” Sienkiewicz said.
Bob Dunn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.