Marni is one of the 147 million Americans whose personal information was exposed in the Equifax data breach. She immediately takes action, freezing her credit and signing up for a credit monitoring service. Marni thinks the ordeal is behind her until she finds that despite her efforts new accounts have been opened in her name. Marni’s scammer has found a way to unfreeze her credit. Marni takes additional action to protect her credit, but the scammer is just getting started.
[00:00:01] Michelle: This week on The Perfect Scam.
[00:00:03] I thought that was going to be the end of it, and the New Hope cop said, "Keep all your documentation, because it's going to come back to haunt you," and how right he was. I got really scared. I mean they were relentless.
[00:00:18] Michelle: Welcome back to AARP's The Perfect Scam. I'm your host, Michelle Kosinski. This week -- identity theft, something we've all had to be at least aware of lately with so many large scale data breaches in the last few years. But this woman's story is extra, more than that. It's identity theft in the extreme, relentless; when the scammers grab on and just won't let go. They keep coming back and back again trying every angle, even ones that most people wouldn't even think of. But first, let's give a big welcome back to Fraud Expert extraordinaire, Frank Abagnale. Hello, Frank.
[00:01:03] Frank Abagnale: Hi, Michelle, glad to be back with you today.
[00:01:05] Michelle: Okay, so this case, Frank, and you'll see how elaborate it gets, all started out with the hacking of credit reporting company Equifax back in 2017. And that affected nearly half the population of the entire United States. So you have all that information out there and you know just a few months ago, US prosecutors charged some of those hackers who were connected to the Chinese military, which is frightening. Frank, walk us through the theory on this. What could the Chinese military possibly want with all of our friends and neighbors' Social Security numbers and stuff like that?
[00:01:43] Frank Abagnale: Well, first of all, as you know, the government has had numerous breaches in their Office of Personnel Management where they've gotten the fingerprints as well as all of the personal information of the majority of government employees, retired government employees, former government employees, contractors, et cetera. That breach occurred a few years ago but that information is now with the Chinese government. Most of it, I think, is used for military purposes, but listen, this happens not only when you have people giving out too much information, but take, for example, FaceApp. FaceApp is a simple app that came out that simply is a Russian app that said that if you send me your picture, and I will show you what you will look like 10 years from now, 20 years from now, 30 years from now.
[00:02:30] Michelle: Right, yeah.
[00:02:31] Frank Abagnale: You know, 80 million Americans signed up for that. Now the Russian government has the biometrics of, images of 80 million Americans, but not only what they look like now, but what they'll look like 20 years from now. Now if you read the contract that people said, "I agree," because it was free, you would have never done it, because when you read it, it tells you everything they can do with it and what they can do with your image and all that, you would have never agreed to it, but people don't read that, they just scroll down and say, "I agree."
[00:03:00] Michelle: So is there a law enforcement theory as to what the Russians and/or Chinese want to do with this database? What are they doing with the information of, as many Americans as they can get?
[00:03:14] Frank Abagnale: Well some of it is, of course, the government in China. Some of it is like gangs in Russia, but the Russian government looks the other way. Some of it is the government itself, and again, some of it, I think, is just for military purposes. I mean if you have a lot of information on people that are in the military or work for the federal government in strategic uh jobs, of people in law enforcement, that's very powerful information to have in your database in case there was some, a war or some activity that you'd want to have that information about those individuals. And I've said many times on the show, you can't rely on the government, you can't rely on the bank, you can't rely on the police to protect yourself, you just have to be little smarter and you have to be little wiser. There are a lot of resources out there through the internet, and you need to take a few minutes to go check these things out and make sure where, what information is out there about you.
[00:04:09] Michelle: Absolutely. Okay, thanks, Frank.
[00:04:12] Michelle: So to our story. Like Frank said, these foreign governments, especially China and Russia are constantly trying to get this kind of personal information. US prosecutors don't think governments necessarily have a burning desire for say your Uncle Joe's birthdate and address, but they are interested in all the personal information they can gather on people who work for the US government in virtually any capacity, or people who are likely to be recruited for that kind of work, especially intelligence work, or people who work closely with those entities who might be more susceptible to being bribed or becoming spies for a foreign government based on whatever personal information these hackers can pull off web or from the vast oceans of data held by companies and governments. You know, when I worked at the White House officials there were constantly, constantly fighting off attempted cyberattacks. I mean multiple attacks every single day, and that's just the White House. So let's go back to late 2017. According to US officials these Chinese military hackers penetrated Equifax's enormous database. One of the nearly 150 million Americans whose personal information was stolen was Marni Ribnick who was just minding her own business there in a small town in Southern Minnesota. It was December, right in the flurry of the holiday season.
[00:05:44] Marni Ribnick: I was just one of the unlucky ones.
[00:05:47] Michelle: Marni is an experienced aesthetician who focuses on skin care for people going through cancer treatments and recovery. She's also a top educator for the popular nail polish company OPI, the kind of person who wants to bring more beauty to the world.
[00:06:01] Marni Ribnick: Yeah, it is really fun.
[00:06:03] Michelle: And she had no idea that any of her information was stolen from Equifax. She doesn't remember getting any notification, just seeing the story on the news like everyone else until...
[00:06:16] Marni Ribnick: I got a couple letters in the mail probably early December, one from Bank of America and one from Chase. They were both thanking me for my application, but they needed some more information. And I'm always, you know, suspicious of everything, so I thought those were scam letters, so I threw them away and just didn't even think anything of it. I just thought that they were just trying to get some information from me, so I threw them out, 'cause I hadn't applied for anything.
[00:06:43] Michelle: And that's a problem now, right? We see this kind of thing happen, but because there were so many scams out there in the world and people are aware of them, they can also easily think that a confusing letter from a real bank is just another scam attempt by some criminal trying to steal information from us. So this was the first warning sign. Unbeknownst to Marni at this point, banks were telling her that she had applied for all these credit cards when she hadn't.
[00:07:14] Michelle: We're so sensitive to scams that being worried about a scam prevented you from actually knowing about a scam, like it's just so hard to tell.
[00:07:26] Marni Ribnick: Exactly. I know, it was nuts.
[00:07:29] Michelle: It only took a few weeks after that for things to really start getting real.
[00:07:35] Marni Ribnick: I got an email from Experian which is one of the credit bureaus, uh, alerting me to 22 accounts that had been opened up in my name.
[00:07:44] Michelle: Oh my gosh.
[00:07:46] Marni Ribnick: And I didn't apply for anything. So that kind of freaked me out right there. Um, so I went a couple of days later to the New Hope Police Department to file a police report.
[00:07:57] Michelle: And when you saw 22 accounts, this is like for 22 credit cards?
[00:08:02] Marni Ribnick: Yes, yeah.
[00:08:03] Michelle: What was your reaction to that?
[00:08:05] Marni Ribnick: I thought, what the heck first of all, and I was just stunned. I had no, no clue what any of this was all about, and I wasn't too concerned about it yet.
[00:08:17] Michelle: Yeah. I know when, when something like that starts to happen, I, I feel like the first feeling you get is just this sinking feeling, knowing how much time you're going to have to spend to deal with it, like you’re going to have to have multiple conversations with people over the phone. And like, you just know it's going to waste a lot of your time.
[00:08:38] Marni Ribnick: It was horrendous.
[00:08:40] Michelle: So you go to the cops in your town.
[00:08:43] Marni Ribnick: Yes, I did, and I filed a police report. Um, and then I went home, and I put freezes on all three credit bureaus so there's Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion, so I put freezes on all three of those.
[00:08:57] Michelle: But there was nothing that they could do or how did they feel like they could help you if any, if at any way?
[00:09:05] Marni Ribnick: Uh, you know what, they really, they were really nice about it and they took my report. Um, this is such a prevalent thing though that I think sometimes their hands are tied, and I just really wanted a record of it, just in case something else did happen. And I thought that was going to be the end of it, and the new, the New Hope cop said, "Keep all your documentation, 'cause this is going to come back to haunt you," and how right he was.
[00:09:32] Michelle: Well that was smart. And the fact that you froze your credit, that's a good idea.
[00:09:37] Marni Ribnick: Yes, but except for somebody unfroze it.
[00:09:40] Michelle: Whoa, so Marni did the right thing. She went to the police, she froze her credit, and someone, somewhere manages to unfreeze it so that they can then open more accounts with her identity.
[00:09:54] Marni Ribnick: All of a sudden, I was getting alerts that accounts were being opened again, and I called the credit bureaus again, and somebody had unfroze my credit, even though there's like a pin number or a verbal password you need to have on all of those in order to do that. The people that are doing this can get past it by answering some simple questions.
[00:10:15] Michelle: Security questions that we've all encountered, but just think how many of those answers now can be found by simply looking around online, those familiar ones like your mother's maiden name, your first boss, or your first car. If someone has stolen all your credit history from a breach like Equifax, they can also have bits of your life history like that. And these scammers were so determined to target Marni they were willing to call individual credit bureaus, pretend to be her, convince customer service people that they were her, answer all these questions, and change her credit status. And they did all of this only days after she had taken the precaution to freeze her credit thinking she had locked the bad guys out.
[00:11:04] Marni Ribnick: Within a week, and it, and it happened three times, three separate times.
[00:11:10] Michelle: That is unbelievable.
[00:11:12] Marni Ribnick: Yeah. Yeah.
[00:11:15] Michelle: What did you think?
[00:11:18] Marni Ribnick: I was starting to get really scared and overwhelmed, 'cause I was still trying to clear up the previous stuff that had been opened, or tried to get open.
[00:11:27] Michelle: And do you know what they were buying on these credit card accounts, like were you able to ever see, like records of any of these accounts?
[00:11:37] Marni Ribnick: Yes, I mean from Home Depot to like $4700 of things, um, furniture from Ashley Furniture, so I was trying to play detective. I'm like, okay, this has to be shipped somewhere. Where is this going? We could find people that way, but it was a lot more difficult than that.
[00:11:55] Michelle: And where, do you know where they were buying this stuff from? Was it all online purchases or were they actually going into stores?
[00:12:03] Marni Ribnick: Yeah, it was both. Um, somebody had gone into a JC Penney’s and he bought like $997 worth of merchandise and a lot of gift cards.
[00:12:15] Michelle: Marni, remember, lives in Minnesota, and much of this activity was centered in Chicago.
[00:12:21] Marni Ribnick: What they did was they moved me to Chicago. Um, I, when I got this original email from Experian, it listed a, um, an address on S. King Drive in Chicago is where they moved me to, even an apartment number on there. And so some of my credit cards had been reported lost and they wanted duplicates sent to this address in Chicago.
[00:12:46] Michelle: That is unbelievable.
[00:12:49] Marni Ribnick: I know it, I know it.
[00:12:51] Michelle: Now Marni is faced with the task of calling these same credit reporting companies again and trying to convince them that she is the real Marni.
[00:13:00] Marni Ribnick: You know what, I, being the victim is really, it's scary in a couple of different fronts, obviously having a crime committed against you, but I had to like give up my firstborn child to find out any information or to get them to change anything, and you know, there's some criminal who can just seem to do it just by snapping their fingers and changing everything, so that was really frustrating for me.
[00:13:27] Michele: Did you find sympathetic ears on the other end of any of these conversations? Like did they understand that you were the victim of a crime?
[00:13:36] Marni Ribnick: I mean yes and no. But they, they were doing their job, not very well I guess, but um, you know trying to get the proper information from me to change things. I called a lot of different places and filed a lot of different reports, and like I said, it's so rampant that I just think people, you know, turn a deaf ear to a lot of it.
[00:13:59] Michelle: So when you’re on the phone with these, you had to call each credit agency and say, no, no, I actually want my credit frozen.
[00:14:09] Marni Ribnick: Um-hmm.
[00:14:10] Michelle: It is like a constant daily uphill battle to reclaim her own identity. But Marni does it. She refreezes her credit so criminals can't open up any new accounts, but then after all that, the scammers unfreeze it again. This is just head-slappingly intense. They're so focused on stealing Marni's good credit, they just will not give up.
[00:14:38] Marni Ribnick: In one instance somebody faxed in a copy, a fake copy of my Social Security card to TransUnion, um, it was my name, my Social Security number, and a forged signature.
[00:14:49] Michelle: Unbelievable. Unbelievable.
[00:14:53] Marni Ribnick: Yeah.
[00:14:54] Michelle: What did you think when you, when you saw that?
[00:14:58] Marni Ribnick: I got really scared. I mean, why weren't these people just giving up and moving onto somebody else other than my credit was really good. That's the only thing I could think of is that I had really good credit and they thought I would be a good candidate for this, but they were relentless.
[00:15:15] Michelle: It's like they were obsessed with you.
[00:15:17] Marni Ribnick: Exactly. Somebody did say that to me actually.
[00:15:20] Michelle: You must have just felt like, why me?
[00:15:23] Marni Ribnick: Exactly. Exactly, and every time it happened, it was phone call after phone call, like you were saying, and you would talk to, first you're on hold forever, and then you'd talk to one person, and then they have to transfer you to the, the fraud department, and then you're on hold there, and...
[00:15:39] Michelle: And then you had to tell the whole story again.
[00:15:42] Michelle: This frustrating process and the fear from being targeted so intently, including with a forged Social Security card in her name, feels to Marni like having a whole other job to deal with. It's like an all-consuming victimization from afar. These criminals impersonated Marni and unfroze her credit at least three times.
[00:16:05] Michelle: You must have the best credit and they thought, wow, this person is stellar.
[00:16:11] Marni Ribnick: Yeah, exactly. The pros and cons of paying your bills on time, I guess.
[00:16:16] Michelle: One good thing, Marni finds out that her homeowner's insurance covers her for identity theft, so they put her in touch with this company called Cyber Scouts to help her sort it all out. The woman she worked with there became like a good friend and guardian angel. Someone to hold her hand at least over the phone.
[00:16:35] Marni Ribnick: Without Char I probably would have, I don't know what I would have done.
[00:16:39] Michelle: Marni also signs up with a credit monitoring company; however, these scammers still weren't finished. They managed to find out about that and even targeted it.
[00:16:52] Marni Ribnick: Somebody who wasn't me cancelled it two times.
[00:16:57] Michelle: How? How were they able to do this to you?
[00:17:01] Marni Ribnick: I had a password which was a made up word, it's not even a real word. Um, and so nobody ever would have thought of it, but they don't know the password, they don't know your pin number, and that should be the end of it, 'cause that's what it's for, but each one of these places said, well, now I need to ask you some more questions to verify your identity before I can do these things, and then they proceeded to ask me which, which one of these four places have I ever lived, and then they give me four choices. Um, do you, what kind of a car do you have, and do you have a loan on it with what plates and they give you four choices. Well, all of that stuff is on my credit bureau and it's, you know, free information for whoever has it, so they were able to answer those questions and then they would um, clear them to make these changes.
[00:17:50] Michelle: This is just so frustrating to hear about. You must have felt like there was just a black cloud following you around everywhere.
[00:17:58] Marni Ribnick: Absolutely, absolutely.
[00:18:00] Michelle: Marni was just dumbfounded at the length these criminals would go to to target her. She's just one person out there with good credit. And when they would call these companies, they would also spoof Marni's phone number, use technology to make it look like she was the one calling. She even has recordings of one of the scammers impersonating her to gain control once again of her credit. Listen to this.
[00:18:27] (call) So I'm trying to access my account over the phone, having a little difficulty I guess with the background.
[00:18:37] Michelle: The customer service person asks a bunch of security questions which the scammer answers correctly, and boom.
[00:18:44] (call) to give me access to your account, so let's update that verbal password.
[00:18:49] Michelle: That scammer now changes Marni's password, and the real Marni is the one, yet again, shut out. This is just beyond spooky. The scammer even asks about the extent of Marni's credit protection.
[00:19:02] (call) Okay, and that's for what? What all does that cover?
[00:19:07] Michelle: And then you can hear her make her moves.
[00:19:11] (call) Yeah, I want to uh cancel the membership.
[00:19:15] (call) Do you have any other questions or concerns?
[00:19:18] (call) No, um, the, my email address that you have on file is what is it, comcast.net?
[00:19:24] (call) Correct.
[00:19:24] (call) Okay, because I don't know, I don't even be at that email address. Can you update my email address?
[00:19:30] (call) Of course.
[00:19:31] Michelle: Right there, the scammer changes the email address on file to make sure that Marni won't even get a notification that her credit protection was just flat out cancelled.
[00:19:42] (call) Is there anything else I can assist you with today, ma'am?
[00:19:45] (call) No, that's it, thank you, enjoy the rest of your day.
[00:19:49] Marni Ribnick: I was just astounded because none of that was true, because that wasn't me, you know, she changed my email address to an AOL address.
[00:19:58] Michelle: At this point, Marni isn't even sure where to turn. Even her protections that she had sought out were easily disabled by these scammers who changed her email address on file with credit agencies as well as her physical address.
[00:20:14] Marni Ribnick: I talked to this detective in the Chicago Police Department too, and she told me that the address here is a housing project, and if you give the quote unquote manager drugs or money, it's a free for all for whatever's in the mailboxes. And that's where all these cards were getting to sent to. And she said nobody would ever get arrested because the people that were doing what they were doing to me are kind of like the peons in the, in the scheme of things. There's, you know, it's way bigger than what these people were doing. And that was really frustrating.
[00:20:47] Michelle: Yeah, and so the Chicago address that they were using probably wasn't, it was probably just a mailbox and not where the criminal lived.
[00:20:53] Marni Ribnick: Exactly.
[00:20:54] Michelle: Yeah, so for that reason, I guess there wasn't very much that the Chicago police could do either.
[00:21:00] Marni Ribnick: Right.
[00:21:01] Michelle: Hmm, doesn't it seem like whatever you try to do to protect yourself is so complicated and takes time and energy and/or money, but when criminals try to do things, it just seems so easy.
[00:21:17] Marni Ribnick: Right. Absolutely.
[00:21:20] Michelle: Like they can just open up a credit account and go to JC Penney's and buy $999 worth of stuff, and you’re like, on the phone, begging someone to help you.
[00:21:32] Marni Ribnick: Well, and I, at one point, had to fill out, and Char helped me fill out all my affidavits and dispute letters and everything, but I'd just fill out a six-page affidavit, um, get it notarized, include a copy of the utility bill proving where I lived when somebody opened up a Comcast account in Chicago that was in collections.
[00:21:52] Michelle: That's right. The scammers kept going. They opened up a cable TV account in Marni's name. They changed the address where her mortgage correspondence would be sent. They talked their way into her cell phone account and changed her phone number so that one day her phone just stopped working.
[00:22:10] Marni Ribnick: I found out that they added a phone number to my Verizon account and deactivated my phone number. So the only, the only number I could call, it was Verizon to say, what is going on here? It's like pulling my hair out just to get these people to believe that I am the real person and I'm not the scammer.
[00:22:32] Michelle: And somehow, Marni still cannot imagine how, the scammers found out that she was working with this identity theft help service that her insurance set her up with, they actually called the woman named Char who Marni had been working so closely with, looking for information.
[00:22:50] Marni: And they said, you know, what is Cyber Scouts, and what do you guys do? And she asked her a couple of more questions, and then Char asked who she was talking to? And she said my name.
[00:22:59] Michelle: I actually have chills...
[00:23:01] Marni Ribnick: Totally.
[00:23:02] Michelle: ...on my arms hearing that.
[00:23:04] Marni Ribnick: Yeah.
[00:23:04] Michelle: It really messes with your head in this situation, with your entire sense of security. Marni didn't know if someone had gotten into her emails, or was looking at her phone records to find these things out. You must have just been like, again?
[00:23:21] Marni Ribnick: Hmm-hmm. Yes, I just, a lot of tears, that's for sure.
[00:23:26] Michelle: It's funny that you say that, because when I picture myself dealing, trying to deal with this, I picture myself actually crying. So...
[00:23:34] Marni Ribnick: Yeah. It was, it was terrible. I was a mess, and I, I mean I quit talking to my friends, because I'd come home from work, and I'd have like a two-hour window to make phone calls before the East Coast companies would close. You know, I quit working out, I quit, all my free time was spent making phone calls or, you know, trying to resolve these things. So it was, it was a huge impact on my life. I'd be talking to myself in my car, I'm going, I can't do this anymore, and it was just, it was bigger than me. It was overwhelming.
[00:24:12] Michelle: Yeah. It's a lot, it's a lot.
[00:24:15] Marni Ribnick: They changed my address to the Chicago address, and I got a statement from Wells Fargo after the fact.
[00:24:22] Michelle: They probably wanted to open up another loan on your mortgage and then make sure that you were not getting notifications at your house for it.
[00:24:32] Marni Ribnick: Exactly.
[00:24:33] Michelle: And then they opened some kind of crazy cable account in Chicago?
[00:24:37] Marni Ribnick: Yes, it was in collections, and I had to prove it wasn't me. Somebody ordered a bunch of furniture and I was trying to figure out where it was getting delivered, 'cause it had to go somewhere, um, so I tried to pull one over on the, the store. I was asking questions, like I was trying to get the address out of her, and I could not think of anything fast enough, and finally, I'm like, all right, I'm going to level with you. This is why I am doing this, and it ended up being um, red flagged, and so the stuff never did get delivered.
[00:25:08] Michelle: Great.
[00:25:09] Marni Ribnick: Somebody caught it, yeah. So, but I couldn't, I, I can't imagine how people can do this so fast, 'cause I couldn't come up with anything in a hurry to, you know, fib my way through trying to figure it out.
[00:25:20] Michelle: Because you’re a good person. You're the good girl. You're the good girl who pays her bills on time every month.
[00:25:27] Marni Ribnick: Thank you. That's right.
[00:25:30] Michelle: Well, at long last, imagine nearly two years after this all began with the constant help of Char, Marni manages to get rid of all the fraudulent accounts, all the wrong addresses and phone numbers, the tens of thousands of dollars in bills from stuff purchased in her name, and gets her credit frozen for what now feels like the millionth time. And this time, like snowflakes during a Minnesota blizzard, it sticks. But even to this day, when Marni needs to make a big purchase like a car and needs her credit unfrozen, she still has to work hard to convince people that this time it's really her.
[00:26:11] Michelle: So looking back at all of this, and now finally feeling like you're free of it, do you see anything that you could have or should have done differently?
[00:26:21] Marni Ribnick: Um, no, you know what, and that's the thing, I did everything that, you know, I was supposed to do. And it, they just were one step ahead of me and they were just really um, after me and, and just didn't want to move onto anybody else, so no, I really did follow all the things I was supposed to do.
[00:26:43] Michelle: And to your knowledge, nobody has ever been arrested for any of these crimes, have they?
[00:26:48] Marni Ribnick: Correct.
[00:26:50] Michelle: Did the police try to help you? Did they stay in touch or did they have any leads? Was there ever any police follow-up?
[00:26:59] Marni Ribnick: Yes, they did. They actually got a couple of names of people, but they needed to work with Chicago, and they needed to work with more like FBI um, type level. And, and they're just too busy to do it. I mean it kind of dropped, but they did try.
[00:27:16] Michelle: Wow, so these people are probably still out there doing this.
[00:27:21] Marni Ribnick: Yes.
[00:27:23] Michelle: So what advice would you give to other people who are going through this nightmare right now?
[00:27:31] Marni Ribnick: So what I would say is first of all, make sure you have a different password for everything that you do online, because it's so easy for people to hack in. Um, what they told me the, the investigators told me to come up with like a phrase, not just a word, but like I love to buy flowers or something like that and use spaces in between the words, or use the number 2 instead of the word to.
[00:28:03] Michelle: Got it.
[00:28:04] Marni Ribnick: Um, and have different things for everything, because if you use, you know, Marni1234 for everything that's really going to be easy to figure out.
[00:28:12] Michelle: It’s almost like in every way, except physically, they became you. Like they had your phone number, your Social Security card, all of your numbers, and your security questions.
[00:28:26] Marni Ribnick: Yes, exactly. You can have fraud alert put on your, the credit bureau, so if somebody does try and open an account, you'll just get an alert that something was, you know, trying to be open. Where a freeze will stop anybody from doing it, but a fraud alert will alert you if something's opened.
[00:28:46] Michelle: It must have made you feel like you always have to look over your shoulder all the time, like what was going to happen next.
[00:28:53] Marni Ribnick: Yeah, I was waiting for the other shoe to drop all the time, and it took me a little while when it finally ended just to believe that it was done.
[00:29:00] Michelle: I've never heard of a case quite this extreme. Were the people that you've dealt with, did they feel the same way, or is this pretty common?
[00:29:08] Marni Ribnick: Yeah, no, they were shocked too that they were just vicious.
[00:29:13] Michelle: What would you say you've learned from this ordeal?
[00:29:18] Marni Ribnick: Everything will get better and you just try and do all the right things, and you know, hopefully sooner than later you'll get your life back again.
[00:29:32] Michelle: Marni got her identity back, but you have to wonder who else's identity these same scammers are holding hostage right now, and how are they able to just produce things like a fake Social Security card that convinces even the people who are supposed to be helping guard your good name? We talked to Mark Lanterman, former Secret Service agent, who tracked down cyber criminals, now in private practice.
[00:29:58] Mark Lanterman: Well I have 28 years of uh, cyber uh security experience, and uh I have testified in uh over 2,090 cases, but who, who's counting?
[00:30:11] Michelle: You've seen the real evolution of this stuff.
[00:30:14] Mark Lanterman: We're also seeing criminals embracing the technology just as much, if not more than, than we are.
[00:30:21] Michelle: And the big part of this criminal process is all of our personal data that's up for sale at any given time on the Dark Web, which is only accessible through a special browser that keeps all users anonymous.
[00:30:36] Mark Lanterman: The going rate for a typical credit report is under $30, and think about the information that's in your credit report; your name, your address, your date of birth, your Social Security number, what your credit score is.
[00:30:52] Michelle: Mark says we should all just assume that our personal information has been stolen and is for sale.
[00:3:59] Mark Lanterman: There's no reason to go out and try to confirm it, because that's our, it has been.
[00:31:04] Michelle: His advice, we should all be freezing our credit, just to be safe. We should all be contacting these credit reporting services to keep tabs on our status, because things like fake Social Security cards are all too easy for scammers to make.
[00:31:19] Mark Lanterman: Yeah, you know, I could go on the Dark Web. All I need is a name and an idea of what city you live in. Odds are within a few minutes and for approximately three dollars, I could buy that person, my victim's Social Security number. I could also uh, for uh, again, just for a few dollars, I could also, uh, gain access to my victim's driver's license information, and then I would go online, I would purchase a high quality driver's license template for the state in which my, my victim lives, and I would fill out all of the, all of the correct information. It doesn't matter what, what picture I use, because my victim isn't going to be known to the bank.
[00:32:11] Michelle: The threat of identity theft tends to be something we don't want to think about, because we don't have time to, until like in Marni's case, it actually happens one day, and then it's like a swamp to try to escape.
[00:32:24] Mark Lanterman: We're becoming desensitized to uh, to data breaches. You know every day there's another three or four or 10 or 20 data breaches that we're hearing about, and I think that we're becoming complacent as consumers. You know, security and convenience really don't go together. It takes a little bit of work to be secure, and I guarantee you that the one hour inconvenience of putting freezes on your credit reports is far better than someone took a second home equity line of credit on your home for $200,000, and now the bank is telling you, prove that wasn't you. And those cases are real, and they happen every single day. You know, take the time, an hour of your time now is worth a year, a year of your time down the road. Just remember, the criminals are in this to make money, and any way that they can make money they will. With literally, $30, I could go on the Dark Web, purchase a credit report, and in about a week's time, I can receive the benefits of over $100,000 worth of fraudulent loan proceeds. It's a lot easier than robbing a bank.
[00:33:49] Michelle: That's very depressing, Mark. I'm, I'm going to be up all night worried about this now.
[00:33:55] Mark Lanterman: Yeah, yeah, you, you and me both. Every person out there should put a freeze on their credit. We need to assume that the criminals can buy our credit reports, and in order to stop them from opening fraudulent accounts, all it takes is a credit freeze.
[00:34:17] Michelle: Okay, well I never knew this. So this is actually practical information for me as well. I'm embarrassed to admit, I have never thought about doing this before. I only think about taking action when I smell a problem.
[00:34:33] Mark Lanterman: It's very easy to do, and it will save you an awful lot of headaches down the road.
[00:34:41] Michelle: This is all great advice. In three words, freeze your credit. Let's check in again with Frank Abagnale about Marni Ribnick's case of extreme identity theft. The fact that these scammers were able to speak to people not only at a credit monitoring company, but other places and just talk the customer service people into changing things or giving them information, that's still a testament to the power of social engineering, isn't it?
[00:35:11] Frank Abagnale: Absolutely, and as I say, and I say all the time and I've said for 20 years, there is no technology, there never will be any technology, including AI that can defeat social engineering. You only defeat social engineering through education. So that means that banks and call centers and credit card companies have to educate their employees that they are being socially engineered, and you can teach people to start those warning signs of people they're on the phone with that start to get into asking them questions and reversing it around to where you understand they're trying to get information out of you. But you have to teach people that. People, uh, you know, basically are honest, so they don't have a deceptive mind. They're not thinking like the criminal on the other end who has that deceptive mind, uh they think, well this sounds okay. The guy just forgot his number. That's not enough. You have to understand how to do this. So companies have to do a better job of educating their employees when it comes to social engineering.
[00:36:11] Michelle: Yeah, and you really wrote the book on that. Thanks so much, Frank, for your insight as always.
[00:36:15] Frank Abagnale: Great, thank you, Michelle.
[00:36:21] Michelle: If you or someone you know has been the victim of a fraud or scam, call AARP's free Fraud Watch Network Helpline at 877-908-3360. Their trained fraud specialists can help you know what to do next and how to avoid scams in the future. Thank you to our team of scambusters; Executive Producer, Julie Getz; Producer, Brook Ellis; Associate Producer and Researcher, Megan DeMagnus; our Audio Engineer, Julio Gonzalez; and of course, Fraud Expert, Frank Abagnale. Be sure to find us on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen to podcasts. For AARP's The Perfect Scam, I'm Michelle Kosinski.
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