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Thursday, May 1, 2014

The nightmare that could happen to you...

Last week, my life was turned upside down and I found myself in the nightmarish situation of being unable to write checks to pay my bills. My situation did not involve identity theft. And sadly, it could happen to anybody at any time.

It all started when I wrote a check at my neighborhood supermarket, a store I routinely shop a couple of times a week. When the check came back as denied, I told the cashier that it simply was not possible. She was well aware that I'd frequented their store for years and she immediately responded that it had to have been a machine error. She asked for another check, which I gave her, and the answer was the same.

She was apologetic but her hands were tied. It turned out that a company called Telecheck certifies the checks on the spot, and they had placed a block on my account.

My first thought was that someone had stolen my identity. I raced home, put up my groceries (which I had to pay for on a credit card) and accessed my online banking accounts. They were fine; the balances were exactly what they should have been, and the checks that had cleared were in fact those I had written. I have two checking accounts; one was opened in 1967 and the other in 1996. I had never, at any time, had a check bounce, had insufficient funds, or even had a check written to me that had bounced.

I phoned my bank, and they told me that they would never have blocked my accounts. They suggested I telephone Telecheck to determine the problem.

I was on the phone for two days with Telecheck and the situation is not yet resolved. The bottom line is that they associated a checking account at a bank I've never heard of in a state I've never been and in a name I've never had... with me. They were unapologetic. They were in a foreign country and were very difficult to understand; yet they demanded my social security number, my driver's license number and personal information before they claimed they could resolve the issue. I repeatedly requested to speak to a supervisor in the United States; under the law, they must transfer a caller to an American supervisor if they request it. They repeatedly promised to do so, only to transfer me to someone else in a foreign country. Finally, I was told they could not transfer me to an office in America. Apparently, they don't have one.

So here is what this means to you, the consumer: when you walk through the doors of any establishment that uses Telecheck's services, your account information can be linked to someone who bears no resemblance to you, your social security number, your driver's license, or your identity. Once that link occurs, good luck on getting it removed.

As a result of this nightmare, I enrolled in a credit monitoring service. When I described this incident to them, they were astounded. My credit score is one of the highest they've ever seen and there are no indications that my identity was stolen. That is great news - except I can't write checks. I have plenty of money in my accounts but my checks are blocked by a third party company that I know nothing about - and had never heard of before my trip to the grocery last week.

I am learning how to pay bills online direct from my account to the payees. And I guess from this point forward, I'll be paying cash for groceries or using a credit card. I don't believe in debit cards (one word: Target) and I've never carried cash before, which has protected me in the event my wallet was lost.

I am also filing a complaint with the Attorney General's Office, the Better Business Bureau, and other appropriate reporting agencies.

It's a whole new world out there.