KANSAS CITY, Mo. – Jennifer Yohe, a Belton, Missouri resident, has no clue when her personal information was compromised, but she says she’s had problems accessing her email, online shopping accounts and even some of her own text messages for nearly three years.
She said she’s seen fraudulent charges come out of her bank account and online shopping accounts since 2019. It’s possible her credentials were stolen through a website, phone call, phishing email, or maybe all three – she just isn’t sure.
“I don’t know where the leak exactly began because there’s so many possibilities here,” she said.
Things took a turn for the worst in April when Yohe said she received a supposed email from Paypal, claiming that someone had used her account to purchase $389 worth of guns.
Yohe said she called the number listed in the email. A man with a foreign accent answered the phone.
“He said that I needed to download an app so they could find out who these people were,” Yohe said. “He said my app information had been compromised somehow and these were very bad people and he went on with more scare tactics, saying things like the police would come to my house and I would be arrested and all that stuff.”
As she was downloading the app, Yohe said her phone began flashing and a warning sign appeared on her screen. That’s when she started asking questions.
“He got very angry and he said, ‘No one will help you,’ and that’s when the phone call ended,” she said.
Ever since the phone call, Yohe said numerous charges have been taken out of her bank account, password changes have been made to her social media and online shopping accounts, and she is no longer able to view her credit score.
“I just thought that it was nothing, it was just a scare, and I wasn’t gonna feed into it anymore,” she said. “I just wasn’t putting two and two together.”
Identity theft on the rise
Yohe isn’t alone.
According to the Identity Theft Research Center’s 2021 trends in identity report, the organization was contacted by 14,947 victims last year, a new record. That’s a 36% increase from the previous year.
Half of all victims who contacted the organization last year were scam victims, according to the report, and 40% of callers said their financial account was misused.
“They’ll have this little bit of truth and then they’ll create the scam around it,” Eva Casey-Velasquez, president of the Identity Theft Research Center, said.
Velasquez said identity theft can impact every aspect of a victim’s life, creating a domino effect that often takes months, sometimes years, to recover from. One bad judgment call, one bad click, can throw victims into financial turmoil affecting everything from social media to major purchases, employment and housing, Velasquez said.
“They’re (victim) trying to purchase or refinance a house in some way, trying to purchase a car, rent an apartment, get a job, go to college, all of those things can be stopped when you’re a victim of an identity crime because if your history is really messed up because of the behavior of a thief, you have to clean that up before you can move forward,” she said.
Advocating for the victims
Velasquez says some judge economic crime victims, which impedes justice and the ability to provide assistance to individuals whose information has been breached.
“We (society) think, ‘eh, your data was stolen or misused,’ ‘eh, you lost some money,’ and again, that’s also relative,” she said. “You will hear about people in relationship scams and investment scams losing tens, even hundreds of thousands of dollars – absolutely devastating.”
“Some people lose $400, $500, $1000 – when you look at that relative to their resources, that can have a significant impact.”
According to the Identity Theft Research Center’s 2021 consumer aftermath report, 10% of victims reported experiencing suicidal thoughts as a result of their identity misuse.
“There’s a lot of judgment around scam victims and those of us, like I said, on the outside looking in on a certain experience or certain snapshot in time, we go, ‘How did they not see that coming?” Velasquez said.
But the reality is many scam victims are coerced into a position where they are made to feel emotionally vulnerable, something scammers abuse and use to their advantage, according to Velasquez. Scammers can use anything to scare or pressure, from telling victims that they’re going to miss out on a great deal if they don’t act fast, to threatening individuals’ loved ones.
“You don’t want to get roped into that sense of urgency,” she said. “That’s what will cause you to make poor decisions because our emotional brain does not make good decisions, it’s our logical brain that makes good decisions.”
Yohe said in hindsight, she feels foolish for clicking on the Paypal email and calling the number listed, but tries to find solace in knowing that she was well intentioned at the time.
FOX4 has since put Yohe in contact with a representative at the Identity Theft Research Center to assist her with building a step-by-step recovery action plan to secure her information.
Recovering from identity theft
If you or someone you know is a victim of identity fraud, Velasquez said the best thing a person can do is contact the Identity Theft Research Center.
“If there was a simple three, five, 10-step process for every type of identity crime, the identity theft research center wouldn’t exist, FTC (Federal Trade Commission) wouldn’t have identitytheft.gov, we wouldn’t need that degree of help for people because it would be this very pat, tide and true process,” she said. “Depending on what has occurred, what credentials have been misused, how, in what industry, in what silo, it’s a very different process.”
The Identity Theft Research Center is a 501(c)3 nonprofit organization, so all of its services are free to the public.
“We just give you a (tailored recovery) plan and we hold your hand every step of the way as you execute on those steps within the plan,” she said.
Individuals seeking identity theft recovery assistance can contact the Identity Theft Research Center at 888-400-5530 or the Federal Trade Commission at identitytheft.gov.