How a stolen wallet turns into a credit and identity nightmare

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“The reason you have to keep your identity so secure is because the credit bureaus are tracking your every financial move, and they're not even keeping your data secure,” says Jessica Roy. Photo by Shutterstock.

Losing your wallet can lead to someone stealing your identity and opening bank accounts in your name. That could mean racking up bad credit and fighting fraudulent claims and creditors for years. That’s what happened to Jessica Roy, an assistant editor of the LA Times’ utility journalism team. 

She says her wallet was taken out of her purse at a bar in 2018, but she didn’t think much of it. “I didn't really keep much in there. There was some cash, my driver's license, a couple credit cards. [Then the] next day, I saw they'd made a couple transactions. I got those reversed, changed the cards. And I thought that was the end of it.”

However, months later in mid-January 2019, she started getting lots of mail. 

“It was like, ‘Congratulations on your new Bank of America account. Congratulations on your new Wells Fargo account. We're following up on your Target card inquiry.’ And I realized they were using my identity to start opening new accounts.”

Roy thinks the thieves may have been able to get her social security number from the dark web. That’s common, according to her reporting. Personal information like passwords or social security numbers are taken from data breaches and online hacks that occur all the time, and many people disregard them.

No one is safe, says Roy. “I talked in my story about the Equifax hack, which was in 2017, [and that impacted] 147 million Americans. [That is] personal information from a credit bureau. The reason you have to keep your identity so secure is because the credit bureaus are tracking your every financial move, and they're not even keeping your data secure.”

At every turn, Roy thought that because she was a reporter and doing due diligence, she would be able to stop the fraudulent claims and transactions. 

“I never thought this would have happened to me. And when it did happen, I thought, ‘You know what, I am going to spring into action. I am going to be on top of this. I am going to make these phone calls and demand that banks make it right. And that's gonna be the end of it. And they're gonna be super helpful and take care of it and close these accounts. And this will all be a closed chapter.’” But it kept going.

Eventually, some arrests happened in Roy’s case, which she says is rare. “It wasn't because ‘oh, the police dug into my crime and worked night and day to solve this.’ It's because [the suspects] were pulled over and arrested for something else. And incidentally, they happened to have a bunch of my identity material in the car with them.”

Roy notes that the thieves made multiple attempts to access her email and bank accounts, but they failed since those were secured. Things like two-factor authentication prevented worse issues down the line. 

“They called me impersonating my bank and asked me to repeat my password as if it were a security question. And I realized I was like, ‘Oh my God, this is them. They're calling me on Christmas to try and steal my identity some more.’”

She adds, “I really think the conclusion that I came to in experiencing this and reporting this story is that yes, there are steps you can take. Nothing is foolproof, and this is a systemic issue that has to be addressed.” 

She advises freezing your credit proactively and setting up two-factor authentication for every account, including email and bank accounts. As a resource, Roy wrote a list of prevention tools and ways to fight back if your identity is stolen.