Opinion – 6/6/2006

Published 12:00 am Tuesday, June 6, 2006

The Panolian: OPINIONS – John Howell Sr

 From the 6/6/06 issue of The Panolian       

Snatched purse creates identity crisis

She had been in a Memphis bar the night someone caught her not looking and stole her wallet from her purse.

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Her momentary lapse and the sleight of hand that took advantage of it triggered a flurry of activity over the next few days and weeks as the victim attempted to recover and cut her losses. Credit cards were cancelled, a debit card was "hot-carded," credit reporting agencies were notified and fraud alerts issued.

To replace her social security card she had to first obtain a state-issued ID. (Lesson learned: don’t carry your Social Security card in your wallet, even if you are going to a job interview). Of course, the state-issued ID had also been in the stolen wallet and in order to obtain a state-issued ID, she learned as she made her rounds of the appropriate bases that must be touched, a certified birth certificate was necessary.

To its credit, the Mississippi Department of Health and Human Services’ Bureau of Vital Records and Statistics rushed back by return mail a certified copy of that birth certificate. That in hand along with other required documents, she was able to get the issuer of state IDs to issue her an ID. State-issued ID in hand, she was able to get another Social Security card.

To its credit, the local bank moved quickly to cut losses and replace the amounts removed through purchases on the stolen debit card. Somebody had themselves a Wal-Mart shopping spree during the first hours following the theft, the account records showed.

Among her credit cards that were stolen that night was a piece of plastic newly-issued and mailed to her by a credit card company. The old card was out of date, but she had never activated the new card. When it arrived, a strip of tape covered the card’s magnetic strip. Printed on the tape were instructions on how to activate the card. Call the "800" number from your home phone to activate, the instructions stated.

That card should not have been a problem, but when the statement arrived some days later, sure enough, she found a charge from the unactivated card dated during the night and morning of that same spree following the wallet theft. Her first reaction was to call the credit card company.

Convincing the credit card company’s person on the other end that she was indeed the owner of the card and the person who had the right to ask questions and protest the charge was difficult, obviously far more difficult than had been making a purchase on the unactivated card.

The credit card company’s person on the other end asked a series of questions to establish the authenticity of the caller who claimed to be the card holder including:

"How old is your mother?"

That’s not an atypical question for a credit card company authenticating identity information, but she knew that she had never provided that information to them when she applied for the card in the first place.

"We never paid too much attention to birthdays around our house," was her reply. "But she’s probably __," and she guessed correctly within a year her mother’s age.

The credit card company’s person on the other end’s next question startled her: "How old is ______ _______?" stating the name of her ex-sister-in-law.

"I never knew how old she was when she was in the family!" was her incredulous reply.

Somewhere during this exchange, the credit card’s person came up with another doozy:

"Can you give me the three-digit security code that’s on the back of the card?"

"Didn’t I tell you when we first started that the card has been stolen?" she replied, by now apoplectic.

"Oh, yeah; that’s right," the credit card person said.

The victim still doesn’t know what results her conversation with the credit card company will produce. The fine print on the back of the statement warns that under federal law, the card holder must write the credit card company to dispute the charges, which she has done.

But "under federal law" means under law as it pertains to credit cards means that it was principally shaped by a Congress very much under the influence of bank lobbyists and their big bucks.

Which may help explain why it is so easy to make a purchase with a stolen credit card and so hard to contact the issuer and convince them that you were its owner.


The Panolian co-owner and publisher John Howell writes about New Orleans, Panola, and the strange and mundane between there and here. Contact him at johnhowl@bellsouth.net


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