How I got my identity stolen, fixed it, and protected myself!

I finally decided to sign up for a credit protection program, to protect me from being a victim of identity theft and having to pay thousands of dollars to repair the problem. I have been the victim of identity theft on two occasions, but they were small amounts and the repair process was free, though it took a lot of time and energy getting things back in place. What got my attention was when I spoke to two people in the same day two weeks ago who had their ID stolen in much more serious ways, which was costing them a whole lot more time and money than my situation.

At first I thought it was odd that a supposedly savvy financial consumer (and financial planner) like me could be a victim of identity theft. I shred all my documents, I use "strong passwords" for all of my websites, I don't give my credit card number to anyone over the phone, and generally use good safeguards.

At least it's not as weird as the Alameda cop who was arrested in Pleasanton last week for selling prescription medication that he obtained from a family under the false pretense that Alameda has a medicine disposal program...now that's embarrassing!

The first attack was when I had a $49.00 charge on my credit card. I remember my life being very busy at the time so I didn't worry about this small charge, thinking that if I asked my wife about it she would recognize the name. I don't remember the actual name, but it was a company that does "Search Engine Optimization" or SEO for websites. When next month's bill arrived there were now two $99.00 charges from the same company so I asked my wife and of course she had no idea what they were for. When I called Chase, the credit card company, they said I should first call the SEO company, which I did, and they told me the charges were for work they did on a website callled www.fishingright.au, an Aussie website, which has now been taken down. So I typed in the URL and sure enough there was a website but it was obvious that the site was just a shell company because it had only one page. I assured the SEO company that it wasn't my site and they reversed the charge on my credit card, and Chase closed my account and issued a new card with a new account number. Case closed. No big expense, not a huge time investment.

The second experience was when a charge showed up on my SBC/AT&T home phone bill. The first page of the bill shows billing for each service - local service, long distance, my add-on's etc. There was a charge for $14.95 from a company called ESBI Inc. I called AT&T to tell them I never authorized the charge. Here's where it got weird: they told me that since it was a different company I had to call that company, but they were legally obligated to charge me for it, just because ESBI claimed it was a legitimate charge! When I assured them it was a mistake, they acted powerless. A Google search on ESBI turned up quite a few complaints about AT&T and ESBI. I did call ESBI and after waiting on hold for 15 minutes I finally got a live person who made me tell them the exact date of the charges on my phone bill before they would credit the charge and discontinue the "service," whatever it was. I pressed them to know the name of the person who supposedly authorized the charge and said they couldn't reveal the identity of the person who fraudulently authorized a charge on my bill, but they could release it to the police. I filed a report with my local police department who requested ESBI release the name to them. After their excellent sleuthing they figured out it was someone in my town who knows our family, who probably filled out an online form to enter into a free giveaway and she used our number so she wouldn't get marketing calls. Since I got my money back I didn't sweat it, because we knew the girl and believed her claims of innocence/ignorance. Hooray for our men in blue.

Fast forward to today and my conversations two weeks ago, I finally decided to sign up for one of these identity protection programs. I figured in today's world, with as much ID theft that occurs, it's probably worth the ten bucks per month cost.

LifeLock was the most well-known to me because they had a huge ad campaign last year where the CEO published his own Social Security Number in a full-page ad in USA Today, almost challenging anyone to try to steal his ID. It turns our someone was actually successful in doing so, but it was a small amount, and LifeLock enhanced their service to plug this new-found security hole.

My first reaction to a company with an ad budget large enough to afford a full-page ad in a national media outlet is that there are probably close competitors who don't spend as much, but also don't charge as much. One of the more helpful sites was www.identitytheftlabs.com. This site has a side-by-side comparison of LifeLock, TrustedID, Debix and Identity Guard. Their site says they have contractual affiliations with all of these companies, but they are selective about which ones they do review. It's hard to know if this is just a promotional company, but they had more info in one site than I found elsewhere at the time.

Some banks offer their own version of protection programs, but mine did not, so that wasn't an option for me.  In the end, I signed up for LifeLock. They had the most features and the $1 million ID theft insurance was better than the $25,000 coverage from Debix and the $20,000 coverage from Identity Guard. Even with the paltry $20,000 coverage, Identity Guard was the most expensive service at $14.99 per month. I have to admit that the visibility that LifeLock gets with their national advertising probably gave me a little more peace of mind, but they also have a very competitive service.

I found quite a few LifeLock promo codes online, which lowered my cost to $9 per month instead of $10. That charge is for each person, so the wife and I now pay $18 per month for this peace of mind. Compared to the earthquake insurance I pay for living a few miles from the Hayward fault, or the auto insurance bill for three cars, eighteen bucks a month seems like a reasonable price to protect my assets and save me a lot of time, worry and hassle of fixing a serious identity theft problem. But I'm still not going to advertise my Social Security Number in the USA Today.

I'm interested in what other people have experienced with identity theft.  Was it a long and expensive process to fix it or is it still ongoing?  I'm also interested in your experience with any ID theft protection programs.  Do you have an example of how they saved you from a serious intrusion?  Let's all learn from each other.