Good deed turns into case of
By Brittny Goodsell Jones
May 12, 2008 | Monica Neilson said she met the girl
at church. That Sunday, the new girl mentioned to some
of the churchgoers that she was looking for a place
to stay. Neilson, who had previously shared some casual
talk with the girl, said she could stay with her for
awhile in her two-bedroom condo. At the time, Neilson,
a full-time office worker, said she didn't think there
was any harm in helping someone out.
But a few weeks later, Neilson realized it was a mistake.
That's because the new roommate stole Monica Neilson's
The thief took Neilson's checkbook and wrote out checks
over a week and a half. The amounts were sometimes below
$50, but some of the check amounts were more than $200.
Neilson said her driver's license was missing at the
same time as her checkbook and thinks the girl may have
taken that as well.
Identity theft accounts for almost a third of the
Federal Trade Commission complaints taken in 2007, according
to the Washington Times. That means identity theft has
become the top compliant, eight years running, The Times
states. And even though identity theft cases declined
last year from 8.4 million to 8.1 million, this type
of fraud is still a concern for any American and no
one is safe.
Especially since people are getting more creative
in their ways to steal identities, the article states.
"A girl at church, who would expect that?" Neilson
said. "I never would have."
Neilson said she felt uneasy about the roommate situation
from the day the girl showed up. The girl actually moved
in a few days earlier than planned, knocking on Monica's
door at 6:30 a.m. The girl only had the clothes she
wore and a purse, Neilson said, which made Neilson start
wondering if there was something wrong.
And a few days later, Neilson said that feeling was
confirmed after her new roommate left a note saying
she would be back later, and then never returned.
The next morning, Neilson said she checked her bank
account out of habit and found a check written to Wal-Mart
for more than $200 had posted to her account from the
previous week. Since Neilson said she had not been to
Wal-Mart in the past week, her suspicions arose. And
after that first check, Neilson said more started coming
That's why Stacy Abbot said to think twice before
hiding personal information in an obvious place. Abbott,
assistant director of financial and counseling services
at the USU Family Life Center, said thieves can find
personal information easily, especially if it is a place
such as a filing cabinet or a labeled box. Abbot, who
works with Cache Valley citizens to educate them about
preventing identity theft, said people should always
keep track of their wallet, checkbook and important
cards. She also said she recommends shredding any personal
information not needed, such as old taxes and credit
card offers. This can help lower a person's identity
theft risk, she said.
However, it's not always that simple.
Abbot said she was surprised when she went to a store
with her husband's card to buy something. When they
asked Abbot for her identification, she passed by without
"All I said was, 'Oh, my husband is in the car,'"
For Abbott, that experience showed her how trusting
people can be and how non-aggressive people often are,
in terms of making sure a person is really who he or
she claims to be, she said. This mistake can cost, though,
since identity theft costs almost $53 million annually,
Once a person knows his or her identity has been stolen,
Abbot said to immediately call the police and the bank.
The financial institution will put all accounts on hold,
she said. This will help minimize the damage of identity
theft. But if that person doesn't check their bank account
often or balance his or her checkbook, things could
get ugly quickly.
"If you're not checking, you will never know," Abbott
After Neilson said she realized her new roommate stole
her identity, she called her bank and froze all her
accounts since the girl probably still had access to
Neilson's checks. Once Neilson went to the police, she
also realized her driver's license was missing, although
she said she is unsure if her roommate took. Neilson
said Logan police told her it was possible Neilson was
targeted because of how similar the two girls look like
each other. The roommate may have picked Neilson out
of a crowd to help pass herself off as the real Monica
Now, as a victim of identity theft, Neilson said she
takes extra measures to make sure her personal information
remains personal. She said she bought a cross-cut shredder
to get rid of mailed credit card offers and any bank
information. Tax information and other important numbers
are now stored at her parent's house, Neilson said.
She also checks her bank account even more often than
before to make sure everything looks right. But the
biggest change in Neilson, she said, is how she approaches
"I am more gun-shy with people," Neilson said. "I
still want to help people but I'm not as forthcoming."
Abbot said remaining a private person is important
when dealing with others in a consumer fashion. Never
give out a social security number unless you initiated
the call yourself, she said. Abbot also said to challenge
requests at the register for personal information like
a person's zip code or phone number. Memorizing things
like pin numbers and passwords is also a good way to
help prevent identity theft, she said.
But thieves can still get to someone's information.
Thieves often go "dumpster diving" through trash to
find checks, bank or credit card information, Abbott
said. Some even fill out change of address forms with
the U.S. Post Office to divert a consumer's mail to
a location accessible to the thief. "Shoulder surfing,"
or a thief looking over a person's shoulder during a
bank transaction, is also another way Abbot said thieves
can capture personal information. This often happens
on Internet banking screens or at ATM machines.
And the person looking over a shoulder while in the
ATM machine may be closer than someone thinks: it could
be someone familiar. Abbott said at least 25 percent
of identity theft victims know or are related to the
Neilson said she believes it. People can never guess
who will steal their identity because the thief can
be someone as close as a friend or family member, she
said. Neilson said to never underestimate the advantage
of keeping personal information secure and away from
"The biggest thing is that it could be anyone, anyone
who comes into your home," Neilson said.
The girl who came into Monica's home and stole Neilson's
identity was caught a few weeks later by Logan police.
By the end of her financial trail, Neilson said she
written more than three checks with Neilson's checkbook.
Neilson said the thief is currently serving time in
jail. Now, with a year sentence remaining, Neilson said
she hopes the girl is getting the help she needs.
"Maybe she came into my life for a reason and the
reason was to get caught," she said. "But for such a
small amount to have to spend a year in jail?"
Neilson shakes her head.
"Why do that for such a small amount?"