In The News: Why you should worry about wrongly addressed mail
Identity theft continues to be an enormous problem for consumers.
About 17.6 million Americans — or 7 percent of the population — were victims of at least one incident of identity theft in 2014, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
We fear that number will continue to grow.
Consumers must be vigilant.
So when a bank statement from Wells Fargo landed in Victoria Steele’s mailbox in February — with someone else’s name on it — she wanted to get to the bottom of things.
The statement was addressed to another woman — we’ll call her Jane Doe — but it used Steele’s West Caldwell address.
Jane Doe doesn’t live at Steele’s address.
Steele said she brought the statement to the West Caldwell branch, where an employee looked up the account and tried to call Jane Doe. The telephone number wasn’t working, Steele said.
The employee then offered to send a letter to Jane Doe, but Steele said that would be silly. It would end up at Steele’s address.
The rep then offered to put a “stop” on the statements to Steele’s address.
“I wasn’t entirely satisfied with that because it meant the person would still be using my address,” she said.
When March came, another statement for Jane Doe arrived at Steele’s home.
Steele said she returned to the branch and the manager looked up the account.
The manager, according to Steele, said the account was opened that past summer with a different address. He noted that Jane Doe uses a lot of ATM transactions, and said Jane Doe went online on Dec. 3 at 1:08 p.m. and changed her address to Steele’s.
Steele said the manager then called the number on the account but it still didn’t work, so next he tried a number Steele found by Googling Jane Doe’s name. (Jane Doe’s real name is a very uncommon one.) That number went to a country club, and the manager was told Jane Doe didn’t work there.
Steele said the manager told her the account can’t be closed, nor could her address be removed without the accountholder’s say so.
Steele was given a 24-hour customer service number.
“I was wasting a lot of time and getting nowhere. Why would no one remove my address from this person’s account?” Steele said. “I had to show them my driver’s license every time I talked to them, yet she had free rein to use my address with no proof of residency.”
Steele said her first call to the 24-hour number was disconnected. When she called back, she said she spoke to a supervisor named “Jennifer.”
“Jennifer told me she went into the account to suppress the statements,” Steele said. “I told her that was supposedly already done in West Caldwell but that isn’t good enough for me. I don’t want this stranger using my address.”
Steele said Jennifer told her that she’d request the account be “suspended,” but that no one would be updating Steele going forward because it would be with a different department. She wouldn’t tell Steele which department.
That call apparently did nothing, because at the end of March, another statement arrived for Jane Doe.
Steele said she returned to the branch and spoke to another manager, who offered to have the statements stopped, but Steele explained that wouldn’t fix her address being linked to someone else’s account.
The manager then said an “alert” was placed on the account so that if Jane Doe comes into any branch to do a transaction, branch employees would discuss it with her.
But, Steele said, the records showed Jane Doe only uses the ATM, so finding her at a teller window was unlikely.
By this point, Steele admits, she became “highly agitated” and she again demanded her address be removed from the account.
The manager, Steele said, told her he’d need a subpoena to do it.
“I became more and more enraged because I feel violated that this person I’ve never even heard of can just use my address without my permission and the bank is doing nothing to protect me from that but everything to protect this person,” Steele said, confessing she used some “choice language.”
Steele said she tried the post office next, but they, too, wanted a police report.
So she filed a police report, and, she said, the police called the branch.
“[The officer] came back out and told me that there was nothing they can do because simply using another person’s address is not illegal,” Steele said.
That surprised us, so we checked with Hackensack-based consumer law attorney Ronald LeVine. He said that indeed, it’s not illegal to use someone’s address unless it’s with the intent to use it for fraudulent purposes.
Another month passed, and, Steele said, another statement arrived in April.
Steele wrote on the envelope in capital letters: “Return to sender. This person is fraudulently using this address. Does not and never has lived here. Please remove this address from this account.”
But the next month, on May 2, she said she received yet another statement for Jane Doe. That’s when Steele called Bamboozled.
Bamboozled reviewed Jane Doe’s bank statements and Steele’s timeline of events.
We reached out to Wells Fargo, and while it investigated, we tried to find Jane Doe.
There were three phone numbers associated with either her name or her former address. We left a message at one, and the other two didn’t have answering machines.
This Jane Doe doesn’t have a criminal record, at least.
Then Steele reported she received two letters from Wells Fargo.
One said the bank was investigating. The second, dated a day later, said it had completed its research about the “misdirected mail.”
Wells said it updated Jane Doe’s address in its records, and that even though Steele’s personal information was never compromised, it would give her a free year of identity theft protection.
We contacted Wells again, and it said a review of its records showed Steele wasn’t a victim of identity theft.
“Wells Fargo has determined an isolated internal error resulted in the wrong address being inserted in the bank’s computer system,” a spokesman said. “Wells Fargo is identifying the reasons for the internal error and taking steps to insure such an error does not occur in the future for any customer.”
The spokesman said for privacy reasons, he couldn’t explain what action was or wasn’t taken with Jane Doe.
We then turned to West Caldwell Police Chief Gerard Paris.
He said his officers found Jane Doe and determined the wrong address was a mistake — not attempted fraud — but that Steele was right to be concerned.
“If someone was using my address and they were doing it on purpose, it could rise to the level of fraud,” Paris said. “There’s an identity theft concern.”
We asked the Essex County Prosecutor’s Office about this specific instance, and it said generally doesn’t comment on active investigations.
“Whenever you see some sort of banking irregularity, one of the first things you look for is identity theft,” said Deputy Chief Assistant Prosecutor Walter Dirkin.
Steele finally received confirmation that Wells changed the address on Jane Doe’s accounts on May 19 — in a letter addressed to Jane Doe.
On May 24, she received more junk mail for Jane Doe, but she hasn’t seen another bank statement.
Still, she hopes the change has been made on the accounts.
“I appreciate that Wells is offering a year of ID theft protection at no charge, however I am disappointed that I had to go to such great lengths to get the change made,” Steele said.