FORT MYERS, Fla. - Identity theft is the fastest growing crime in the country, according to the FBI, with a new victim every two seconds.
And it can happen to anybody.
WINK News asked me to share my story after discovering my personal information was hacked earlier this month. If we haven't met, let me introduce myself: I'm Cayle Thompson.
I say those three words every day, in every newscast in which I appear. My name and face are there for everybody to see. But suddenly, my name and reputation are at risk. Somebody else is using them to commit crimes. I am now on a mission to repair the damage done by a total stranger who doesn't know Cayle Thompson, and doesn't care.
We don't know yet how my identity was stolen, and we don't know who did it. But I know who caught it, and I am grateful.
Karen Seiferth is in charge of Human Resources at WINK-TV. She's delightful and witty, with a framed motto on her desk that reads: "The beatings will continue until morale improves." Journalists can appreciate sarcasm. I appreciate Karen Seiferth all the more after this experience.
She received a document in the mail that would make most HR directors think I was no longer with the company.
"I saw you in the hall, and I saw you on the news," Seiferth told me. "I knew you were still here."
She handed me the document as we sat in her office. It took me a moment to realize what it was: an application for unemployment containing my full legal name and my social security number. My social security number.
"My hackles went up because I knew it was fraud," Seiferth said.
She assured me I wasn't in trouble and that the appropriate officials within the state's re-employment office were on the case. A fraud investigation was already underway.
I wish that's where the story ended, but it's not.
My producers allowed me to take the rest of the day off. Phone calls had to be made, letters drafted, and emails sent. I called my bank and mortgage company. I called the three credit reporting agencies and requested a free fraud alert on my accounts. I spoke with a woman at the Federal Trade Commission and filled out an FTC Identity Theft Affidavit. I went to the Lee County Sheriff's Office and made a full report. I visited the Social Security Administration office on Colonial Boulevard. Aside from the unemployment claim, I had no idea of how or when or where my identity had been used.
And I still don't. That's part of what makes the experience so terrifying.
We discovered the crook tried to take out at least two loans in my name. The credit companies couldn't give me any information by phone or email without documentation, including the LCSO and FTC reports. Fortunately, the loan requests were denied.
I signed up for credit monitoring with Experian. It costs me $20 a month. Not a bad price to pay for peace of mind, I thought. If it works.
We do stories all the time on identity theft. We speak with victims. We speak with experts. I spoke with LCSO fraud specialist Beth Schell.
"We probably average about 400 calls a month," Schell says. "Anybody can become a victim of identity theft. Literally from a baby, to somebody who is 100 years old."
Schell says the theft of government benefits using fraudulent identities is on the rise. This month, dozens of people were arrested in Collier County, accused of using stolen social security numbers to obtain jobs. Many are illegal immigrants.
According to the FTC, Florida has the unflattering distinction of reporting more identity thefts per capita than any other state. Equally unsettling, Cape Coral-Fort Myers ranks sixth in the nation among cities. Naples-Marco Island comes in at number three.
"We are a nation of convenience," Schell says. "We want things quick and we want it now. Unfortunately, that has opened up a whole new can of worms for identity theft."
Applying for benefits online is meant to be easier than standing in line. But online applications also allow thieves to collect benefits using stolen identities, without the fear of a security camera catching their face. Computer IP addresses can be traced, but many lead back to WiFi hotspots, hotel rooms, coffee shops.
Experts say the best you can do is to act quickly once you discover you are a victim.
First, check your credit reports and ask for a free fraud alert. File a complaint with local law enforcement and share any evidence you have. Remember to call the Federal Trade Commission and request an FTC Identity Theft Affidavit. Inform your banks and credit card companies. And if needed, request the Social Security Administration place a block on your number.
On a personal note, take the time to get to know your Human Resources Director. You never know when it might pay off.
Because of Karen Seiferth, we think we caught on early. And with the steps I've taken since, I've seen no evidence of continued activity under my name. But the fact remains that my information is out there, in the hands of a crook, and I don't know when or if they'll try again.