Dealing with Identity Theft

by Kieran Healy on May 18, 2006

Wil Shipley, who writes the excellent “Delicious Monster”: (BibTeX export and nice integration with “LibraryThing”: in the next version, please please please) had his identity stolen recently. The story is the by-now standard one of “frustration and anger”:, and is as yet unresolved. As Kevin Drum “has been saying”: for some time, the law in this area is basically broken: the companies need to be responsible for fradulent accounts, just as banks and not customers are responsible if money gets robbed from the local branch’s safe.

Wil’s case is typical. He’s absorbing all the costs of getting his money back out of a frozen E-Trade account, because E-Trade could care less and has no incentive to bother helping him out. Until the law is changed, of course, Wil still has to deal with this himself. One of his commenters makes the following interesting suggestion about dealing with the company over the phone:

bq. Even more important, never hang up. Most call center personel are expressly forbidden from hanging up on you. Simply stay on the line until they think of a new solution.

Sounds plausible. My brother runs a call center that handles the North American traffic for a financial services company. I’ll have to ask him whether this is true. Howie Becker tells a similar story about dealing with recalcitrant call center staff. He had learned from a relative that, at his airline, difficult-to-manage customers were labeled “irates.” First the representative would try to fix the problem, but if the caller persisted they would get bumped up to a supervisor. The representative would tell the supervisor, “I have an irate here”, short for “irate customer.” Becker decides he might as well cut straight to the supervisor, so he calls the airline and says “Hi, I’m Howie Becker and I am an irate. Can you help me with this ticket?” The representative sputters, “How did you know that word?!”



ellen 05.18.06 at 10:57 pm

Actually, they can hang up on you if they can’t help you, once they’ve advised you that they’re hanging up.

If you can’t get a resolution from the first line management, escalate to the next level. Call during the day when managers are there. And most importantly, be polite. When I was still a customer service agent I went out of my way not to help people who treated me badly. Poor customer service? Absolutely. But treating customer service staff like drooling imbeciles is poor behavior, too.


astroprof 05.18.06 at 11:30 pm

The rule against hanging up on a customer was certainly true a decade ago at my HMO in New Jersey. I once spent half an hour of near silence with a customer “care” representative, waiting for her to give in and bump me upwards….


Doug 05.19.06 at 4:59 am

My dad may be the King of all Iratia: He once got a US airline to change his ticket by calling a board member out of the blue at home in the evening. If that board member is now one powerful corporate voice against phone numbers being for sale on the Internet, so much the better.

(There was also a good reason for my dad’s iratitude: He was scheduled to fly out of New Orleans on the day that Katrina was going to hit, and the airline was changing flights out of other cities for free, but not, at that point, out of New Orleans. You’d be irate too.)


Doug 05.19.06 at 5:03 am

Come to think of it, identity theft of people with the power to change things might be a really useful prod. Anybody want to be Dick Cheney? Bill Frist? How about the whole board of Citibank?

Or maybe Eliot Spitzer, he already knows how to come down on financial companies like a ton of bricks, and will be even better placed as gov of NY…


Jasper Milvain 05.19.06 at 5:44 am

At least a bare degree of politeness may be necessary if you want them not to hang up on you. At the call centre I once temped with (for a credit card company) you were allowed to dump abusive callers, “abusive” meaning shouting, swearing, or using racial epithets. Sometimes I’d just sit there praying for a swear word.


Mrs. Coulter 05.19.06 at 8:36 am

Be aware that e-Trade reps may deal with a difficult question (not necessarily a difficult customer) by putting you on hold for 45min to an hour. A speaker phone and lots of patience are essential for dealing with them. (Note that I will never voluntarily deal with e-Trade again, now that my account is totally closed.)


ohyeah 05.19.06 at 9:10 am

Howie’s got nothing on me.

I begin all my calls by telling them that I rate *higher*!


Steve LaBonne 05.19.06 at 9:42 am

The law isn’t broken- it’s exactly the way the corporate lobbyists, who write the laws nowadays, want it.


alan 05.19.06 at 11:31 am

When I was dealing with this three or fours years ago, it was really terrible. A couple of companies were pretty good to work with and even returned my calls. Representatives for another company (coincidentally the one where the $5K leather sofas were charged with a no-identity-check account and a scribble), however, refused to even give me the direct number for their fraud department. Each time I called, I had to wade through a tier-one customer service representative who refused to give me his or her name and tried to convince me that everything was okay. Police procedures are a nightmare, too: If the fraudulent purchases aren’t made locally, the local cops won’t help. And the cops at the purchase location won’t take a report because you don’t live there.

Our case was a rare criminal justice success: Months later we got a call that a woman had been arrested and charged with dozens of fraud counts. We dutifully sent off all our records (after confirming the identity of the San Antonio investigator!) and she was later convicted.


Martin Bento 05.19.06 at 2:18 pm

The real solution for identity theft is anonymous transactions. In an electronic cash system where it does not matter who you are, but only whether you have an appropriate electronic key, there is no identity to steal. There is the matter of securing the key, of course, but that is a finite and well-defined technical matter that can be addressed head-on, whereas protecting identity requires hacks around the entire existing social system where identity is referenced and used in myriad ways, a possibly intractable problem.


Christopher Ball 05.19.06 at 11:47 pm

What should the law be? Shipley’s problem was that money was stolen from his account. Most identity theft cases involve someone running up debt in someone else’s name. The hassle involves getting the record of the debt cleared from your name.

In D&B v. Greenmoss, the “liberal” justices dissented and argued that allowing punitive damages against credit reporting agencies without showing “actual malice” would undermine free speech protections.

Should we make it easier to pursue libel suits?


mike 05.20.06 at 1:03 am

They hang up actually when they r not able to solve your problem further. Its an advantage to call when manager is there and don’t be rude with them,after all they r there to help u. They attend poorly to the customers who are impolite with them.
So decision is yours……..


Randolph Fritz 05.20.06 at 1:59 pm

In general, when fraud is suspected, it is best to report it quickly with a certified letter. Don’t talk to their people–you will never be given the opportunity to speak with the person you need. (Exceptions: small local banks and credit unions.) It is very hard for a business to deny a paper trail; they know it and will usually act on a reasonable request delivered in this manner. I suspect that polite letters from an attorney to the businesses involved would quickly resolve the matter; one has to decide if this is worth the money. In the long run, of course we need new laws; in the short run, these are probably the best courses open to us.


John Quiggin 05.20.06 at 10:40 pm

Christopher, I thought I had read somewhere that the credit rating agencies had statutory protection against defamation actions resulting from bogus information. Do you have any knowledge of this?

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