A few Thursdays ago this guy – call him Al – walks into a bank – a branch of my bank, WSFS, but in Chester County, where I don’t live – and tells them to cash a big check. From a real estate company. With my name on it.
Let’s see some ID, said the cashier.
Al shows a driver’s license. In my name. With my date of birth. My address. Someone else’s license number. And a face that, well, we should squint …
She asks for her birthday. He gets the right month. But he is absent for eight days. From the license he just gave him.
The cashier keeps this to herself. I can’t take this, she said. Check from third parties, not from our bank.
Alright, Al said. Put it down, and I’ll just take some money out. (From my account.)
He has the account number. And a credit card from another bank, with my name on it. Which turns out not to be active.
It will take a few minutes, she said.
Al leaves the queue and walks back to the lobby, to wait for my money, or his nerves to go wild. They usually wait a bit, then head for the door and are not seen there again, the cashier will tell me later.
She approaches her colleague, the one who was born with an extra dose of personality. She talks to him, quick and calm.
The colleague walks to the door, turns around and stops to talk to Al, in a friendly way. Soon it’s a conversation. They talk, and Al stays a little longer than guys like him usually hang around, waiting for someone else’s money.
Meanwhile, the real me is hammering my computer, yelling at my boss, on time, 30 miles away.
My other phone rings.
“Are you in the bank right now?” Asks the cashier.
“Do you have a mustache? ” she asks.
Not since, well, my last driver’s license photo.
“We call security.”
I send a message to my brothers, who live this way. One of them, who has this story of confrontation with skulls, writes right away, “Do you want me to drive over there and have a little chat? I can be there in 5. “
I leave the welcome party to the East Whiteland Township Police, which is coming soon enough. Like the bank staff, the agents question Al. He hadn’t been lucky, he said. He must have slept in a car. Someone approached him to ask him to go to banks to cash checks, with corresponding ID, for part of the proceeds.
It’s criminal, unfortunately for Al. “He tried to cash a check with your name on the payee,” Constable Chris Stymiest told me. “When that was refused, he tried to deposit it and withdraw the money.”
It’s happening a lot, the bankers told me, especially since the pandemic, and especially this year. Sometimes they hire drug addicts, one said.
Identity theft has increased sharply during the pandemic. The Federal Trade Commission says bank fraud reports of identity theft have increased from around 5,000 per month in 2019 to over 7,000 per month last year and 10,000 per month this year, although ‘they declined slightly after peaking in March. The FBI cited the pandemic – with more of us working from home, from under-protected computers, as well as any stimulus the shutdowns have given to executives of theft networks. (Credit card fraud, which is about three times more common, has shown similar trends.)
Delaware, where I live, and a banking center, was among the states hardest hit by identity fraud in general; Pennsylvania and New Jersey were also above average.
Scammers buy or steal credentials and account numbers. If there is a photo, they try to find someone who might look like him. A little.
With all of the stock market-driven bank mergers and cost-cutting system upgrades this year, they think bankers are being distracted. Especially just before closing time, that’s when it happened.
A lot of times they’re right, and they get the money, and the bank has to fix it. Especially, I guess, when the crooks know and remember their supposed birthdays.
Al, unlucky and confused about the numbers, spent the night in jail. The judge set the bond at a low level – $ 500. Someone came and posted it.
The police have given no idea where Al, or his manager, got my financial information: it’s an active investigation. The bank froze our account. We have new cards and new checks. We had to enter into new direct payment agreements with our employers, utilities, insurers and charities.
Agent Stymiest suggested that we let the credit bureaus know that our personal information has been compromised so they can send us a special alert the next time someone says it’s me. And view our credit reports. The usual digital reset, when other people pretend to be you.
The officer said he didn’t expect Al to show up for his hearing in the district courtroom last Friday. He did not do it. The judge signed a warrant. Which means things could get worse for Al when he stops again.
“We are proud of our team,” said Shari Kruzinski, the bank’s director of clientele. She urged customers to check their accounts a lot and call quickly when you see money disappearing. Call TransUnion and other credit bureaus, as well as the Social Security Administration if they got your number. File a police report. Maybe they will find a pattern and confuse the thieves before they hit you again.
My bank is fortunate to have had these brave employees at that outpost that day. They protected me better than any digital codes and remotes, the way it worked. I hope they pay them enough.
I can testify that the Township of East Whiteland is well protected, as are the prosperous suburbs, by a responsive police force. Even if the courts aren’t set up to hammer down the petty crooks or, more importantly, the biggest thieves behind them.
Wherever he is, I pray that Al’s luck improves, where he no longer feels that his best chance at winning is to pretend he’s me. Or you.
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