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Thursday, December 27, 2012

All I Wanted For Christmas Was My Stolen Identity Back

Thank heavens I got my library card back!

Last spring, I parked in a spot I’d been using for the past decade and darted off for a short run along the Schuylkill River. Adrenaline hurdled me back over the fence into the lot upon my return as I spied shattered glass on the passenger side of our minivan. Miraculously, although a sack of grubby garments was gone, my purse, buried underneath, remained untouched. “They didn’t get your pocketbook?” the cop exclaimed when I called to file a report. “You should go buy a lottery ticket.”

I should have, because now I realize just how fortunate I really was.

In the intervening months, I have stopped running along the Schuylkill River, but I just couldn’t resist a Christmas Eve jog along the Wissahickon Creek. I had to bring my phone and wallet, since I was on my way to an appointment. So I locked them up tight in the glove box; my favorite Patagonia parka and fleece I shoved in a sack with some other clothes as far as they would go up under a seat. Despite my efforts, this time when I returned, I saw that not only had someone smashed the passenger window but that they had also torn out the glove compartment and ransacked the vehicle, looking for valuables. They got all of mine—including my legal identity and the holiday cards I was about to mail.

“I need to use your phone,” I blubbered to the clerks at the A Plus Mini Market up the street. One of the startled attendants tried to push the handset through the slim slot in the bulletproof glass but eventually gave up, unlocked the office door, and offered me a chair. I sat shivering in my sweaty clothes and sobbing into my hands, soon realizing that I needed to get home and start trying to retrieve what bits would be left of my identity and credit. Frigid air lacerated through the gaping window as I careened around the curves, glass shards skittering along the seat and floor.

Once home, I tried to collect myself in order not to terrify our three children—and my husband. Jeff’s family came over to babysit, while my husband and I began a frantic marathon of Christmas Eve calls to our bank, our credit card companies, our medical insurance company, our car insurance company, the glass repair shop, the auto body shop, and the Philadelphia police. Our interactions with the latter were underwhelming, our conversations about the theft and subsequent fraud going something like this:
“You got a name for that place they used your card on Girard Avenue?”
“My bank just listed an address,” I said. “But, wait! My husband just Googled it! It’s D’s Variety. If I get any more information, should I call you back?”
“Nawww, that’s alright,” the cop said before clicking off.

I later realized that the officer was probably trying to eliminate the “investigation” from his territory so he could go home to his Christmas turkey. That’s all I really wanted to do, too, except that unlike the cop, I was already home and in identity theft hell on a holiday—even though my husband, his brother and his parents kept trying to reassure me.
“I don’t think these guys were exactly criminal masterminds,” Jeff said.
“It was a smash-and-grab,” his brother added.
‘But you never know,’ I thought in my OCD panic, imagining an identity theft savant not only draining our very last savings but also racking up a rash of fines at our local library branch.

Unable to find solace at home, I did the logical thing and posted my distress on Facebook. One friend shared a blog about “How To Catch An iPhone Thief.” Another remarked that at least I had not left my daughter’s presents on the closet shelf before heading out of town and gotten to experience Christmas Eve “panic shopping.” Another friend told me that though she was sorry to hear about my misfortune, on the flip side it would provide blog fodder. “Same thing happened to me in August,” another sympathetic friend wrote it. “It’s a nightmare, but I promise you will get through it.” She advised that I monitor all accounts on a daily basis.

The most helpful tip of all, however, came after I wrote that maybe I would get a new iPhone for Christmas. “Jeff won the fantasy football league,” a friend divulged. “He’ll take you shopping!” I shoved my husband toward the nearest Verizon store, where we discovered to our dismay that we were two months shy of upgrade eligibility. An iPhone 5 would knock us back at least $550, and Jeff’s winnings had only tallied in the $400 range.

“You got any devices at home you could use?” the clerk asked, seeing my eyes well up, tears about to pour, once again, down my already blotchy face. Then I realized I did have in a cupboard my mother’s old Blackberry. So the lovely Verizon clerk remotely accessed its information and walked my husband through how to power it up online. “You’ve been more helpful to me that the police, my credit card company, my insurance company and my bank, combined,” I told him, gripping his hand. I meant it. And we went home to spend the rest of the evening online setting up fraud alerts at the credit agencies and wrapping Christmas presents.

The next morning, after our children had torn open their gifts and I had burned a batch of bacon, my husband and I successfully shelled out hundreds of dollars for LifeLock, using a long-forgotten credit card he had stashed away in a drawer. “The CEO’s an idiot,” my brother-in-law informed us at Christmas dinner. He and my husband discussed the commercials where the CEO declared he was so confident in LifeLock that he would give out his social security number right in the ads. “And then dozens of people stole his identity,” my brother-in-law said, chuckling, as I sank deeper into my mashed potatoes.

But as I was bathing the kids Christmas night, Mary Ann from Germantown called to say that she’d found my sodden wallet on the sidewalk on her way home from church. I handed her my heartfelt thanks and a Cyclamen I’d had on my windowsill. Then I turned on the minivan light to see what the package contained. Out skittered a small army of grubs all over my lap, at which point I leapt out of the car—hurling my wallet back on the sidewalk from whence it came.

A little more self-possessed than I was, Jeff managed to seal up the cards in a plastic bag and to toss the empty, defiled wallet into a nearby garbage can. His brother knelt down offering moral support as I sat on the sidewalk in front of our house, sanitizing our insurance cards, our library card and our museum membership cards with Clorox Wipes. “Bugs are gross,” he said. “They just like to get in things, but they won’t hurt you.” Bolstered by a hot shower and the knowledge that there were some neighborly people left in the world, I felt a bit better.

My mood continued to improve the following day after the glass outfit came to our house to repair our car window. We made an appointment to take the Pilot for interior repairs. I got a temporary driver’s license and managed to withdraw some cash from my local Wells Fargo branch. And I also received a call, on my husband’s cell phone, from Steve, who was working on a job site in Germantown, who’d found my mobile phone in the mud. In the bone-chilling bowels of a gutted building, I found Steve in a Carhartt jacket, a man who’d kindly searched through my “dialed calls” history to locate Jeff’s digits. This time, having been to the bank, I handed him a $20 bill instead of a plant.

“I don’t want your money,” he said. “I don’t want anything.”
“I’m just so grateful to you,” I said. “It’s just so nice to know that there are nice people like you and that lady who called me about my wallet.”
“It’s the good people who got us this far,” Steve said. “And it’s the good people who will drag us on through.”

I’m starting to believe he’s right.