Dealing with identity theft during the shutdown

Wednesday, January 9, 2019

Kathleen Parker

I’m betraying no secrets by observing that the government shutdown provides a window of opportunity for identity and electronic theft.

Trust me, the crooks already know this. And, unfortunately, so do I.

Short story: I decided to start collecting Social Security (even though I couldn’t possibly be old enough) and created an account with the Social Security Administration, filling out all the proper forms and wondering if I was doing the right thing.

Consider that second guess a foreshadowing of calamities to follow. In a word, I got hacked — and robbed.

Hacking is a fact of this life, and identify theft is the future. Nearly 150 million people’s identities were exposed in the Equifax breach of 2017. Just last November, Marriott announced that private data on up to 500 million of their customers may have been robbed. At some point, mine fell victim, too.

I confess that I’m not very good at managing life’s infrastructure — keeping abreast of the regulatory minutiae, filling out forms, paying bills, checking all the boxes for which God invented the personal assistant. (If you’re interested, see email address at bottom.) First, I’m always on deadline. Second, I’m always on deadline. Third, bureaucratic operations require a pace and patience with which I am unfamiliar.

Recently I dialed up a bank and, after fumbling several times through its tree of options, none of which pertained, I finally pecked a number and was told that my wait time would be 28 minutes. No, I said to no one, it won’t be — because I have 28 things to do in the next minute. I hung up.

Thus, a better-organized person might have wondered sooner why she no longer was allowed to access her personal Social Security account. I did wonder, briefly, but then wandered off to slay other dragons. A couple of months passed. A hungrier person might have gladly spent hours on the phone arguing with an agent about the missing checks that were due in her bank account. But, probably because I’m still employed and Social Security isn’t my sole income, I was able to postpone any reckoning. I simply assumed, the government being government, things are slow.

Finally, having received no money since being told to expect my first check in October for six months retroactively, I called a local SSA representative, who told me the money went out in October to a Green Dot account.

A what? I don’t have a Green Dot. Is that 30 or 40 percent off?

Well, it says here it went out in October.

But I didn’t get it.

It says it went to a Green Dot account in October.

You said that already. I didn’t get it. I don’t have a Green Dot. I’ve never heard of Green Dot.

It’s a thing.

It’s not my thing.

Next I called the national SSA number, which I found on a letter I’d received saying that the SSA couldn’t send me any more money (haha) because it had an incorrect address. A very professionalsounding woman picked up the phone and, upon hearing my description, immediately declared a fraud, issued an alert, filed a report with the inspector general, and told me to call the Federal Trade Commission to get information about freezing my credit.

Suddenly, I’m very interested in this problem, which can’t be resolved because the relevant government agencies, including the FTC, are shut down. The cobwebbed IdentityTheft.gov website says, “we will resume normal operations when the government is funded.”

Bottom line: Someone hacked into my Social Security account and changed my bank routing and checking account numbers to a Green Dot account that was probably created for that purpose. This means the thieves likely have a small book’s worth of information about me, both financial and personal. What might come next, and what should I do?

By now, you’re likely thinking: What about the truly elderly person who depends on her monthly Social Security check to live? Someone who may not know how to navigate the internet or have an accountant to call? What does the 87-year-old widow do when this lowest form of human life preys upon her limited income?

As it were, I feel lucky. I have a job and resources. I’ll survive — and maybe even recoup the stolen money I earned. But for now, the U.S. government is little to no help. And the bad guys know it.

(Contact Kathleen Parker at kathleenparker@washpost.com .)

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