Thursday, January 20News That Matters

How Identity Thieves Took My Wife for a Ride

Insurance companies routinely check your credit when signing you up, so it was baffling that Progressive would have issued my wife a policy without her thawing her file. But it listed TransUnion as “the financial responsibility vendor” — an amusing euphemism if you know how long consumer advocates have been complaining because insurance companies use credit data to set rates — and sure enough, my wife’s frozen credit file indicated that Progressive had pinged it this month.

How? Incredibly, an exception often allows insurance companies to check your credit even if you want nothing to do with them. As we learned, that exception meant that Progressive could help itself to my wife’s file — which in turn helped someone pick the pocket of the State of New York and its taxpayers, like us.

In its wisdom, Progressive considered my wife responsible enough to warrant coverage. Fortunately for us, Mr. Pasternak was paying! The second page of our welcome packet said that “the authorization you gave for your first installment payment” was to come from a bank account with his name on it.

So meet our new best friend. With a name like Shiran Pasternak, he was a quick internet search away. Was he the thief? We wondered. But if he was, he was doing a pretty good job of hiding it. Like my wife, he had a “Welcome to Progressive” package and notes from the state about a mysterious unemployment claim that he had never filed. (The bank account and routing numbers in his Progressive packet were identical to ours, but neither had any connection to institutions where any of us do our financial business. Because the numbers were truncated, it was impossible to figure out if they came from a third person or were made up.)

Once we put all of that together, Mr. Pasternak — coincidentally a former New York Times employee — breathed a sigh of partial relief up in Irvington, N.Y., and let me push forward finding out what had happened to all of us.

Here’s how it works.

Automobile insurers — even the ones you don’t use — already know a lot about you. They share claims information among themselves to help weed out unprofitable or reckless customers who try to jump to another provider. They can also get access to your driver’s license number, your current auto policy data, and the make and model of your vehicle. Often, they buy this information from states (which end up sending money right back out when the buyers are careless and unemployment fraud proliferates).

The insurers want to make applying for a policy as easy as possible. So once you start entering information, they like to help you along and fill in some of those blanks for you. For some unfortunate victims, it was as simple for the scammers as copying down the driver’s license number that popped up, although it usually required more technical know-how.