My name is Drew Armstrong, and I'm the U.S. Health Team Leader for Bloomberg News in New York City. My identity was stolen in 2013, though I didn’t find out until later. The details of the theft are laid out in a federal indictment (found here: https://www.plainsite.org/dockets/33qirtxfc/florida-southern-district-court/united-states-v-manukyan/) against a man named Marlen Manukyan, who opened bank accounts under my name.
When the police contacted me, I didn't worry too much about it at first. But the extent of the damage—and the years it would take to clean it up—started to emerge not long after. I'd get stopped by federal agents when traveling and get rejected for new credit cards. My credit was rated poor and my profile was put on a security watchlist somewhere in the government.
It’s been six years since Manukyan stole my identity, and finally the damage he did seems to be gone.
Since my identity was stolen in 2013, breach after breach has exposed the vulnerability of the systems that guard the private information we casually hand over to companies, health-care providers, and government. Social Security numbers are the keys to the kingdom.
I wrote about my experience in August, and you can find the story here: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-08-12/i-lost-my-identity-to-a-fraudster-and-it-took-six-years-to-clean-up-the-mess
UPDATE: Thanks for coming, everyone. Happy to answer further questions in the replies on Twitter at @ArmstrongDrew. I usually post about health care, business and financial stuff. But ID theft has become a side-hobby.
What took so damn long?
It's a paperwork nightmare, mostly.
When you ID gets stolen and somebody sets up accounts in your name, you have to go bank by bank, working through the phone trees, finding the right person, making them give you the right forms, making sure they tell you how to fill out those forms, send them in with copies of your proof of ID, then wait weeks or months.
Then you have to do the same thing with the credit bureaus, with the TSA, with credit card companies...
It's a massive, massive bureaucracy to work through, and nobody in it is great at actually helping people like me.
What is the #1 advice you'd give to people in regard to protecting identity?
Couple of things, actually:
1) Check if any of your ID has been stolen (it probably has, given all the breaches)
2) Set up a credit freeze with the major bureaus, and only unlock it when you need to get a loan/credit card
3) CHECK YOUR CREDIT REPORTS -- They're free, and you can get them once a year thanks to the FTC
4) Be careful about how you give out your SS number -- social security and DOB are the keys to the kingdom
While putting your credit back together and cleaning up the mess, what was the most surprising thing you had to fix?
The national security stuff. Because the guy had used my name to steal money, then wire it out of the country, there was somebody using MY NAME for criminal activity, and who clearly had an ID with my info.
Every time I boarded an international flight, I'd be pulled aside and searched coming back into the U.S., and often on the way out as well. Baggage searched, briefly (and politely) interrogated. But was clearly on a TSA/CBP watchlist.
That was a pain -- a TSA/CBP agent eventually told me that there was a form I had to fill out. I sent in a TON of info (court filings, proof of ID, I think an affidavit) and was able to get a redress number. No problems since.
But I don't recommend getting stuck in the maw of the national security/border apparatus. And I'm definitely one of the people who have it easy, in certain regards.
Were there any small red flags that you realized after you found out?
Yeah -- I should have been getting copies of my credit report and watching more closely. I found out when the cops in Florida called me. BUT it only took the person who stole my ID a few days to set up all these fake accounts. And most people review credit reports once a year, or MAYBE once a month if they're paying for a service. The damage would have been done already.
Have you received compensation from this man that stole your identity? Also, because you were on so many security lists, how much did it delay you when travelling?
No, no compensation.
It delayed me an hour or two every time I'd re-enter the U.S. Was typically separated from my wife, who had to wait for me while I was questioned/searched. Annoying experience for both of us after a long flight, but other people have to deal with far worse.
I never missed an outbound flight b/c of it.
I think the law enforcement/border folks who questioned/searched me were generally bemused. I don't come off like an international criminal, I don't think.
Read your story earlier this week and it sounded terrifying.
Is there anything you do differently now to prevent this from happening again?
Were you subject to an employer credit check during this time, and if so, did it adversely affect your ability to gain employment?
The biggest impact I felt, financially, was that I couldn't get a credit card or apply for a mortgage.
Once you've been hit with this, not only does it trash your credit score (make you unloanable), you're also declaring that there's criminal fraud on your financial profile -- nobody wants to give you credit or let you apply for a big loan.
I'm sure it would come up in a background check -- it was enough to get me flagged with some distant part of Homeland Security.
I’ve had my identity stolen before, I froze all 3 credit bureaus (I believe) and I’m wondering what should I do next? How do I know if anyone is still doing stuff or if they are working under my SSN or are opening bank accounts?
This sucks, but you don't know. The freeze is the best thing you can do, as well as contacting banks.
One thing that *didn't* happen to me (yet, as far as I know), is fraud to take advantage of social security benefits, or tax scams.
The Identity Theft Resource Center has a bunch of good suggestions for this.
But the reality is that even while you can take a lot of small steps, some of this involves watching and waiting. it's whack-a-mole.
How come we don't get a new social every 10 years? Just mixem up. Then if your I'd is stolen the most damage can span is 10 years. I don't know if that would work or not though.
This gets at a really important idea. We use this number for EVERYTHING and once it's out there, there's very little security (sorry, pun not intended) around it. It's a major major problem.
Have you had any thought of using your connections to see if you could get an interview with the guy? I think his story would be very fascinating.
I thought about it and if the trial had happened, would have. But he's also a criminal with connections, it seems, to Russian organized crime. And I'm not sure if that's really a world I want to start dabbling in.
How do we know this is really you?
My brother-in-law asked the same question when he saw these two pics:
How do you know it's over and what would you recommend people do to fix this if ever happens to us?
The good news -- and the best indication I have -- is that my credit scores are good again. I don't have a *lot* great to say about the credit bureaus, but they're a good indication that I got most of the mess cleaned up, at least in terms of what lenders would be looking at.
Also, the guy who did it went to jail and was set up to be deported. Thanks, FBI.
Is the guy who stole your identity from the same country as you?
No. He's from somewhere in Eastern Europe, is all I know, and was part of (or adjacent to) an organized crime ring in Florida. The money he stole using my name (but not from me) was wired to Russia.
At what point during the several years was the most frustrating point? When did it become downhill from here?
Definitely on one of the very, very long calls with one of the banks. Bank of America was one I remember well. I gave my whole story to about the fifth person I'd talked to and been transferred to, and the (very nice!) woman thanked me for being a BofA customer. And the whole point of my call to them was that I hadn't been! It just drove home the idea that these people were not equipped to help. I think I probably yelled and poured a drink after that one.
What more can you say about pros/cons of putting a credit freeze on your credit report?
CONS: It takes some paperwork, and it means you can't open a new credit card or get a loan while the freeze is in place.
PROS: Nobody else can, either.
It's also reasonably easy to remove when you need to.
I keep hearing a lot about identity theft in America, far more than in other countries - why isn't something being done about this, in your opinion?
Probably our use of social security numbers for everything. We tell people "oh this number is secret, don't give it away" and then we give it for every credit card app, rent applications, the health-care system, college apps., etc etc etc. It's out there everywhere and there have been so many data breaches.
When you say that you didn’t find out your identity had been stolen until “later”, how long was that?
A few months, IIRC. I didn't know anything had happened until the police called.
What should they do to set up a better system to deal with identity theft so it doesn't take so long? How do we set one up?
I don't have an answer to that, but I can say that in my experience the system we have works very poorly, both on the prevention side and the cleanup side.
I'd certainly have had an easier time if the financial institutions and credit bureaus had any kind of a centralized hub for dealing with these problems when they come up. Maybe they've developed them in the years as this has gotten worse and worse.
How were you able to prove that you weren't the one that created those fraudulent bank accounts?
Huge amounts of paperwork. But the key -- and most people aren't this lucky -- was that I had the charges filed in court against the guy. Legal documents from federal prosecutors help. They're also no the norm.
I feel like I'm pretty good at working the systems at these institutions (partly because I've done similar stuff as a journalist covering big government departments, congress, companies) but I can't imagine what it's like if you don't come into a bad situation like this with some of those advantages.
Is the person that did all this to you caught and punished?
Yes. Was jailed and then scheduled for deportation.
What precautions did you take so it never happens again? What advice can you give to us about it
1) Credit freeze
2) Watch your credit reports
3) Be careful about giving out your SS number
How helpful were the authorities in cleaning up the mess? What could they have done more?
The FBI/DOJ were extremely helpful, and unfailingly nice (as you'd hope they'd be to a witness/victim)
At the bank/credit level, they were useless. I bounced around on hold until I could find the right person, who often wouldn't know HOW to help me, and I had to walk them through every single step. I made a lot of errors. There is no central financial authority/group to help clean this up.
Customs/Border were exactly as you'd expect them to be, except for the agent who searched my bags and told me that there was a form I needed to fill out, and where to find it. Good dude.
Have you met the guy ? If yes , What was your response ?
I didn't get to meet him. The DOJ had me set to fly down to Miami for the trial (in the middle of winter, so who says your government never does anything fun), but he took a guilty plea a few days before and the trial didn't happen (and neither did the trip).
Are there any businesses/services you can hire to sort out the mess? Are there laws protecting the financial institutions from liability?
There are a bunch, and I won't endorse any in particular as I haven't used enough to judge properly. In the end, I had to do most of it myself.
In most of the big breaches, there have been offers of free credit monitoring services for victims. Seems to be better than nothing.
Do you have a distrust of things like credit now? Have your spending habits changed (like more cash and less using credit)?
I don't have a distrust of credit, but I am much more careful about keeping an eye on my financial/credit profile.
I hate to say this but our consumer financial system has not come up with a great fix for this.
How did you manage being unloanable and not getting credit cards? Is it doable not having access to such money matters?
I was lucky in that:
-I already had a few (good enough) credit cards i was able to keep using
-It wasn't at a time in my life when I needed a major bank loan for a car or house
-When I did get married and my wife and I decided to buy a house, we were able to use her credit profile (without mine, per our mortgage broker's advice)
Where did the info he initially used come from? With all the breaches and such, it seems impossible to actually guard against.
I still don't know. He had my social security number and DOB, pretty clearly. But this was before a lot of the REALLY big breaches like Equifax.
What was the scariest thing you realized about our information as it relates to the government when going through this?
It terrifies me to get my identity stolen and the scariest part is that I probably haven't got the slightest idea of how deep the rabbit hole actually goes...
Not scary, necessarily, but it was pretty shocking to figure out after being pulled aside at the border a few times that somebody who committed a crime against me, years before, in a different state, could get me put on a watch list and I'd be stuck on it for years.
Could I get your SSN and mothers maiden name please?
yes, just send yours over
DO NOT DO THIS
I have seen people recommending some sort of legal assistance/Id theft insurance packages. Are these in any way worth it or just scams based on fear?
There are some good credit monitoring services out there, but I'm not in a position to endorse any in particular.
As for the other stuff, buyer beware...