Ultimately, we’re all responsible for our own fates. That’s what David learned when an important tax document arrived in his mailbox with his Social Security number and name exposed. It didn’t come in a “sorry we damaged your mail” envelope like most mangled letters do, so he was suspicious. Maybe someone had ripped it open to get his info. Maybe a postal employee had mangled it, but forgot to put it in an apologetic envelope. Whatever had happened, surely the postal service, credit bureaus, and police would have answers for him, right? Right.
He had faith in the system, which didn’t pay off.
I received my W-2 in the mail the other day from my employer in a damaged envelope. More accurately, the envelope was ripped and missing the left half of the envelope and its contents, exposing the inner right contents along with my name and social security number. Normally, when mail is damaged, the post office marks the mail as so; nothing so fortunate in this case and therefore a little suspicious. At first I hesitated; damaged mail happens, perhaps this wasn’t a big issue? After prompting from my spouse and concerns expressed by the post office itself, I thought better.
Sadly, an entity expressing concern over identity theft and actually responding to the incident are, in my experience, two radically different themes:
- The post office directed me to my mail carrier; my mail carrier stated this is how the mail came to them and directed me back to the post office branch.
- The post office then informed me that a report would need to be made with the local police department, who would then submit a form to the US Postal Inspection service that would start the investigation on the postal end of the equation.
- Contacting the police resulted in an “incident” but no report, as no direct evidence that a crime had been committed could be seen.
- Returning to the post office and giving them this verbal incident number resulted in many blank stares and consultations with direct supervisors. I was ultimately told that a supervisor would look into the incident and contact me in a few days. At no time did anyone ask to see the damaged mail along with its postmark, so I’m not certain what evidence, exactly, they’d be investigating.
- As the vagueness of this process continued, I became increasingly uneasy and contacted the Federal Trade Commission’s Identity Theft Helpline (877-438-4338). While they couldn’t do anything directly, they were helpful in providing me the steps to take along with the phone number to the US Postal Inspection Service where I could file a case. At no point did the post office offer this information. So now, I have a “case number”.
- The FTC also instructed me to contact Experian to request a Fraud Alert be placed on my file. However, the phone number they provided gave me an automated recording that only allowed me to hear about their wonderful services that I could purchase in either English or Spanish, or via TTY. The folks at the FTC were confused when I called back with this information, stating that “that’s the phone number [they] have”. I ultimately called Equifax instead to skirt around the issue, although to their detriment they did try to sell me their version of Experian’s bells and whistles.
- The FTC asked that I also contact the IRS Tax Fraud hotline, which turns out the be a recording which directs callers to download form 3949A. This form isn’t for identity theft; it’s to report an individual for a violation of Income Tax Law. No help there.
The bottom line is that everyone talks about how important it is to prevent identity theft, but none of the elements of the system work smoothly together (if at all). The best that you can hope for is that by pursuing each angle yourself and documenting your progress that you’ve at least armed yourself. After all, no one else is as interested in your own welfare or, as it turns out, able to help out with accurate information.
That’s true: even when outside entities seem competent, you still have to take charge and be your own advocate. If your identity has been compromised, or you think that it might be, here are a few classic posts that can help you start figuring out what to do next: