What happens when your identity is stolen

I never thought much about my identity until someone tried to steal it. The only indication I had that we had been robbed was a call from the Commonwealth Bank Fraud Department. Apparently my card had been used for several payWave transactions at service stations along Racecourse Road in Flemington. Looking online I saw that almost $900 had been spent.

Even after the call it took an embarrassing time to realize we had been robbed. My wallet was gone along with my keys, a pack of cigarettes and a computer screen. After the police arrived, we also realized that my then boyfriend’s car had been stolen.

It’s sobering to see the police in our house. There were three of them and their boots were big and banging on the floor. Suddenly, my furniture seemed too small, ridiculous even. I wondered what the thieves had thought. Other than the car and my wallet, the thieves hadn’t taken much. I had lost my wallet many times and didn’t think much about it. I would come to regret it.

In the event of identity theft, the driving license is considered the “golden ticket”. It contains all the information one might need to access a wide variety of accounts. A full name, date of birth, address and photograph. This information can be used to take out credit as well as to perform credit checks to find out who you are banked with.

Four months later, the difficulty began. The winter had been long and it was now August. I was working from home and cooking my lunch in the microwave when I received an email from my bank – a different payWave fraud bank – telling me that my details had been updated. Surprised by my own vigilance, I called the bank. While I was on hold, I logged into my account on a computer.

As a catchy tune played on the phone, I could see my details changing. An unknown phone number and email now floated on the screen before my eyes. Still pending, I attempted to reset my password, but verification required a phone number. The music stopped and I told the rep that my account had been compromised. The bank changed my contact details back to the correct ones, launched an internal fraud investigation and told me they would contact me.

The next day – another dreary in the middle of lockdown – a bank representative called me and said someone had called four times and posed as me with the correct credentials. Weird, I thought: I had assumed the incident was some sort of routine digital hacking, but that seemed more targeted.

Because there is a Commonwealth Bank branch near my house, I decided to go talk to them. After showing my driver’s license, I told the cashier that I had trouble with another banking company and that they could check my account for any access or withdrawal attempts. The cashier smiled at me, her fine blond hair just covering her face. “No, that sounds all good to me” I remember she said. “Oh…wait, unless you tried to empty your account yesterday afternoon at Point Cook.”

I looked at the cashier. We were in full confinement, with a radius of five kilometers and a curfew. I had just explained to him that other accounts of mine had been compromised. “No, it wasn’t me,” I said. “Do you have more information, please?”

According to the file, someone with my driver’s license had asked to remove my entire account. According to the cashier, the only reason the money was not returned was that my license had expired. I thought back to March. At the time, I had tried to renew my license but we were in confinement. A month later, when my wallet was stolen in the burglary, my expired license was stolen. After hearing that someone was trying to impersonate me to access my bank account, I asked the bank to freeze it. I went straight home and started Googling “identity theft”.

I found the idcare.org website, which was probably the most helpful resource I’ve come across. I submitted a web request for someone to call me. In the meantime, I have done credit checks on myself. From there I found out that someone had opened a Car Next Door account in my name and taken out credit from a fast online credit agency. I was alarmed and realized that other accounts may have been compromised as well.

I called Medicare. My account was hacked and a new card was ordered to my current address. I called VicRoads. A new license had already been ordered. I started to get very worried. If cards were ordered to my address, did that mean my house was being watched? Were people planning to steal my mail? I went to an Australia Post branch and asked for my mail to be forwarded for three months. It cost $68.

At this point, when I understood that the purpose of the crime was to extract capital, I started to feel mad, targeted and violated. Every time I called a company or government agency I had an account with, I was on the phone for hours. Each time I felt that no one really understood the seriousness of how their company neglected to protect my account. Although I had called VicRoads and reported the fraud, I discovered that someone had called later that day and ordered a new license and VicRoads had processed the order. The only reason it hasn’t been sent is that I called them back to check.

Over the next few days there were several more in-person attempts to access my Commonwealth Bank account. I called the police who had handled the original burglary, but the officer had moved on and never answered me. The cheating attempts continued and I began to feel like I was living in a perpetual bad dream. I couldn’t access my money because my accounts were frozen. I asked for a new health insurance number, but the attacker found out that number too. I started to fear that the inevitable would happen – and that they would eventually get more IDs.

I ordered shutters for my house and always kept an eye out for cars parked on my street. I felt deeply uncomfortable in the world and began to suspect that people were looking at me. What little trust I had in government agencies has been completely eroded. No one seemed able to help me. It was always my responsibility to determine whether fraud had taken place.

I requested to change my driver’s license numbers. I learned that this process was arduous. Not only did I have to prove fraud with a police letter, but I had to mail the documents. Apparently the process took at least a month. Getting the police report was quite difficult; the crime was considered “separate” from aggravated burglary and I needed a new police report. No policeman ever helped me, called me back or seemed to care.

While waiting for a new license number, I got used to seeing my identity reduced to a series of numbers and old addresses. I was uncomfortable with the information available online. I felt seen in all the wrong ways. I changed my electricity account, my gas account, my water account, my telephone number. I set up direct debits while still unable to access any money. I borrowed money and felt lucky to be able to do so.

Every couple of days or so, the attacker would attempt to break into my accounts again, online, in person, and over the phone. I closed my trading account. I added verbal passwords to my superannuation account. I felt furious that I needed to protect what little money I had with extremely long phone calls, complicated passwords, and conversations that never seemed to go anywhere. I started to see how the abuser worked. They used a combination of information pulled online, with the human factor of calling and showing up.

Finally, I received a letter from VicRoads informing me that I was eligible for a new license number. I went to my branch and took a new photo. In the photo, my skin is pale and sickly. I have dark circles around my eyes and my lips are pursed in a grimace. My hair looks dry and limp. While I waited, I overheard an elderly lady express her exasperation and distress at having her savings defrauded.

I went to the doctor and found that my health insurance information had changed again. I changed them and ordered another new number. I changed the address of all my accounts to the address of my then boyfriend’s parents. He was the only one I could think of that the attacker didn’t know. They still receive my mail.

In the depths of my anguish and frustration, I considered legally changing my name. At the time, it was the only way to really secure my identity again. I didn’t, but I wondered what makes an identity and what makes it worth taking. Eventually, without explanation, the fraud stopped.

Then, last Tuesday, I received an email from Optus. My name, date of birth, email and phone number were leaked during their cyberattack.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 8, 2022 under the headline “Losing My Identity”.

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About Debra D. Johnson

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