For many years, Pam Giltner and her husband refused to use credit.
As a victim of identity theft more than 20 years ago, when several retail cards were opened in her name and checks written from her account, Giltner, 69, spent years rebuilding her financial life.
When she learned that she was one of the 145 million Americans affected by the recent Equifax data breach, in which personal and financial data were accessed including Social Security numbers, dates of birth and addresses, she was cast back to the fear, frustration and anger she felt as a victim of identity fraud.
Now, she has trouble sleeping at night.
“It’s the fear of losing money,” says Giltner, a retired registered nurse in Albia, Iowa. “And the fear I might have to go through this all over again.”
That’s why she was crying in her banker’s office. She hadn’t lost any money yet, but she was afraid she might.
“We don’t have a lot of money,” she said, which is why she went in to ask about protecting her savings account. Her 50th wedding anniversary is coming up and she and her husband are planning a trip to Hawaii. “We’ve been saving for that for a long time,” she said.
While she was reassured that her money was safe, her banker got something out of it, too.
“She hadn’t heard about the breach,” Giltner said. They looked at the Equifax security breach website, where you can find out if your information was compromised.
To no one’s surprise, the banker was affected, too.
Finding the fraud
Giltner realized that her identity had been taken when credit cards she didn’t apply for began arriving at her house.
This was in 1993, a time before online payments were a way of life and the murky digital heists of data were a routine threat. She knew exactly how her identity got lifted: someone broke into the glove-box of her car and stole her checkbook, with Social Security number written down inside. It was not uncommon at that time in Iowa for retailers to ask for your Social Security number and put it on your check.
The thieves first tried to write checks from her checkbook, but thanks to a personal relationship with her bankers, they were never cashed.
“It was a small bank in a small town,” she said. “They knew my signature.”
She closed that checking account, but the charges to newly opened retail credit cards kept rolling in: Best Buy, Kohls, a local farm-supply store, a local lumberyard.
“The thief opened and maxed out several credit cards and even went back to one store the next day, increased the credit card max and maxed it out as well,” she said.
Thousands of dollars of debt were piling up in Pam Giltner’s good name.
Shutting down the thieves
Giltner was fortunate that her bank had seen the red flags on checks she didn’t write. “The bigger banks wouldn’t have paid any attention,” Giltner says.
But convincing retailers that she was not the one who had maxed out the cards took a long time to resolve. “It was weeks of work,” Giltner says, “that turned into months that turned into years.”
She filed police reports locally because she needed the report numbers in the dispute process with creditors and the credit rating agencies. She followed up with the companies and challenged the reports to her credit.
Both Giltner and her husband placed freezes on their credit — and essentially stopped using credit for years.
“We didn’t use any credit because I was scared to death,” she said. “We paid cash for almost everything and just lived day to day.”
She had stopped the fraudulent cards and adjusted to this new credit-less reality when, seven years after the original theft, she received a notice that someone was writing bad checks in her name again. This time at a drug store in Iowa City.
“I got a letter in the mail saying that I need to pay this and go to check writing classes,” Giltner recalls, still incredulous. “I called the county attorney and explained what had happened. Then I had to dig up all the case numbers and get those to him so that he could clear me of this check issue.”
In the end, Giltner said, there was no justice against the thieves. The companies opted not to press charges because it was cheaper for them to eat the loss of the thefts.
Hearing about Equifax
When Giltner heard about the Equifax data breach on the news, she said to herself: “Not again.”
Having lived for years with her credit under a freeze, she felt brave enough to lift it a few years ago.
“I was not thrilled with the freeze,” she said. In her state it was $10 to freeze her credit and $10 to thaw it so she could get credit. She had been happy with the credit alert system she used.
“But as I soon as I heard about the problem, I paid for Lifelock,” she said. “That’s $40 a month for the 2 of us. That’s a lot of money, but I’m scared and frustrated and angry.”
She also placed a credit alert on her credit with each of the bureaus, which alerts lenders to possible fraud on her account before any new credit is extended to her.
She is now the town crier on identity theft. She’s made sure that her grown children, their spouses and their children have checked to be sure they know if they are affected. Half of them have been.
“I tell them to check right away,” she said. “I tell everyone I see. I want people to know! l wish this would never happen to other people.”