Firms caught up in identity theft offer little help to victims
Victims of identity theft will tell you: The shock of being defrauded isn’t the worst part. What really stings is having to spend days or even weeks undoing all the damage.
At the very least, you’d think businesses caught up in bogus transactions would be ready and willing to assist in bringing the ID thief to justice.
But Blanca Elizabeth Cervantes, 43, of Manhattan Beach found herself on her own after a collection agency said she owed $671.58 for a DirecTV subscription she never ordered at an address she’s never visited.
“It was obvious that my identity had been stolen,” Cervantes, a pharmacist, told me. “But when I notified DirecTV, they did nothing to help.”
It’s a problem I’ve heard from numerous fraud victims. And as someone whose identity has been stolen twice, I can personally attest to the languid response many businesses give to situations like these.
“All too frequently, companies aren’t thinking things through clearly enough,” said Jay Foley of ID Theft Info Source, a San Diego consulting firm. “They don’t realize what problems like this can do to their reputation.”
In Cervantes’ case, the debt collector, Afni Inc., advised her to call DirecTV’s fraud hotline. Cervantes said she was told by a service rep for the satellite-TV provider that the disputed service was for an apartment in Hawthorne.
The name on the account was “Bianca Cervantes” — one letter different from Blanca Cervantes.
This wasn’t DirecTV’s problem, the service rep explained, because satellite service for the Hawthorne apartment building was provided by a subcontractor, Consolidated Smart Systems in Gardena. Cervantes was instructed to take the matter to them.
“That didn’t seem right,” Cervantes said. “I don’t know who this other company is. I don’t want to give them potentially confidential information about myself.”
And that probably would be the case. A Consolidated spokeswoman told me that customers are required to give their Social Security numbers when they sign up for satellite service.
Cervantes almost certainly would be required to give her Social to anyone investigating this case so she could prove she’s a victim of ID theft.
DirecTV said there was nothing else it could do. Cervantes was reluctant to call Consolidated. So she contacted me instead.
A search of publicly available records confirmed that someone had burrowed deep into Cervantes’ life. I found listings for a Bianca Cervantes at the Hawthorne address that included Blanca Cervantes’ Social Security number and birth date.
When I called the apartment, a man answered and said he was a friend of Bianca Cervantes. He said she was at work and that he didn’t know how to reach her. He said that if I left my name and number, he’d have Bianca give me a call.
I’m still waiting.
Cervantes (the defrauded one) and her husband, Jose, have acted wisely. They balked at sharing sensitive information with an unknown third party. They also wasted no time in putting “freezes” on their credit files.
A credit freeze prevents anyone from gaining access to your file without your permission. This is a great way to keep ID thieves at bay because few businesses would be willing to offer money or a service without first checking out a customer’s credit status.
It typically costs about $10 to place a freeze on each credit file at the three leading credit-reporting agencies — Equifax, Experian and TransUnion. Then you have to pay an additional $10 or so every time you want to authorize access for a legitimate credit check.
This means whoever has Cervantes’ Social Security number will now have a much harder time defrauding her because he or she won’t have the password to unfreeze Cervantes’ credit files.
But it shouldn’t be up to Cervantes alone to fight this battle. DirecTV should have immediately taken the initiative in corralling its affiliate, Consolidated, and in putting the matter to rest.
Robert Mercer, a DirecTV spokesman, confirmed that Cervantes was told by the company to take her troubles to Consolidated Smart Systems.
“But that was a mistake,” he said. “The analyst who handled this call should have taken care of things herself.”
Mercer said DirecTV’s policy is not to send people packing when they report incidents of fraud, regardless of whether the matter involves the company or an affiliate.
He said DirecTV has subsequently informed the debt collector and the credit-reporting agencies that Cervantes was a victim of ID theft and that she’s not liable for any fraudulent charges.
If that’s indeed DirecTV’s policy and not merely a response to my nosing around, then good for them. That’s precisely the stance that corporate America should take.
There should be a zero-tolerance policy toward fraud and ID theft. If an affiliate is the cause of the problem, then that problem should be its business partner’s as well.
I know this level of service is expensive. I know it requires plenty of staffing and considerable training of employees.
But over the long run, which costs a company more: that extra layer of service, or the many customers who decide they’d rather place their business in more trustworthy hands?
David Lazarus’ column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. He also can be seen daily on KTLA-TV Channel 5. Send your tips or feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org.
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