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Identity Verification Sucks! (Again!)

Identity Thief as Paris by CarbonNYC on Flickr After my friend’s troubles with verifying his identity for ING Direct, and their subsequent explanation of the incident, I didn’t expect to be writing about identity verification for a while. Sure, there were lessons to be learned and research to be done, but we knew that research would take months and months to complete, due to the nature of identity verification companies.

However, one week after my friend Rick’s incident with ING Direct, I got into my own “identity verification” hot water. And it upset me all the more because of the trouble with the first incident. And so, it became…

The Story of How Stephanie Was Not Able to Prove That She Was Herself Without Knowing Information About a Woman She Barely Knows

Friday, September 11th: Thanks to my recent move and a few once-a-year bills, my credit card bill this month was about $200 higher than it usually is. No problem though, because I’ve squirreled away money in a “Getting Established” fund nearly a year ago, for this very purpose. I’ve kept my GE fund in an E*TRADE “Complete Savings” online savings account. About a week earlier, I’d electronically “linked” my ING Electric Orange Checking account to my E*TRADE savings account. Before that, I’d only had my Bank of America checking account linked to my E*TRADE account. But this wasn’t efficient, because I now use my ING checking account for nearly all transactions.

I went to move nearly $400 from the E*TRADE account to my ING checking account. I didn’t anticipate any problems: the link to the ING checking account had been verified with two small deposits, and there was more than $400 in the E*TRADE account. But my action set off some sort of automatic alarm on E*TRADE’s computers. Which seemed perfectly reasonable to me: I was moving a fairly large sum of money to a newly linked account. It’s understandable that they wanted to verify that I was really me before letting the transfer through.

So E*TRADE sent an email to my listed email address with an “activation code” that I would need to enter into the E*TRADE interface before the transaction would go through. Fine with me! I got the code in my email within minutes, pasted it in, and hit “Continue.”

Then the trouble started. Getting that activation code from my email was not enough to verify me. Apparently, E*TRADE also thought it necessary to ask me multiple choice questions about myself that were developed by a third party agency. These questions are supposedly based on public record. There was one question about places I had previously worked at – none of them were places I’d even heard of. There was one question about my mother’s age (got that one right!). But then, there were four questions about a Gail XXXXX, where XXXXX is a last name of no one I know.

But Gail is the first name of two women in my family – my half sister (who is 17 years older than me, and we’re not very close) and my dad’s wife, who I’ve met only a handful of times. Both women have had last names in their lifetimes that I don’t know about, due to marriages. Yes, I’m really not that close to either of them, so I don’t know their previous last names.

So, I was faced with a dilemma. It was late at night – my dad could help me answer these questions, but he had just signed off of an online conversation with me, telling me that he was going to bed. And I thought I had a reasonably good shot at guessing the answers (I don’t know why I thought that). So I guessed.

And guessed wrong. The website told me that my identity could not be verified, and my account had been locked. Nope, the transfer that would allow me to pay my credit card bill was not going to go through, and no, I could not transfer the money to my other linked account. I would have to call their customer service between the hours of 8am and 6pm to get my account unlocked.

I wrote an email to my dad, who was actually still awake, and called me back instantly. He told me that XXXXX was the last name of his wife during her previous marriage. But there was a further complication: her ex husband, Mr. XXXXX, had remarried, to another Gail. So there was a new Gail XXXXX that the questions could refer to. It was unlikely, based on the questions, but it did make the whole thing all the more dubious. He gave me all the information on his wife that I would need to answer the questions correctly, should I ever have to go through this process again. I went to bed.

Saturday, September 12th: I called E*TRADE’s customer service. After handing over a ton of information over the phone to get a rep to look at my file (account number, my address, my date of birth, the last four digits of my Social Security number…), he told me there was nothing he could do. He gave me the direct number for the department I needed, but told me that they’re not available on weekends. I would have to call back on Monday.

Monday, September 14th: I call the direct number I got from the first E*TRADE rep. I hand over all of my information again (account number, my address, my date of birth, the last four digits of my Social Security number….) and have the new rep take a look at my file. She sees that my account is locked, and says that she’ll need to pull up a new set of identity verification questions for me to answer, over the phone, before she can unlock the account. I wait on hold. She comes back on the line and says that the system “can’t find any more questions” about me, and puts me back on hold. She comes back on the phone to tell me that she’s going to get an administrator to try and find some questions about me in the system. Back on hold.

She comes back on the line to tell me that there just are no more questions about me. She tells me I’ll need to fax in a letter with information about me (account number, my address, my date of birth, the last four digits of my Social Security number…) and a copy of my license. I tell her I don’t have access to a fax machine. She asks me when I can get access to one. I ask her if there’s some other way I can verify my identity. She says I can do it my mail (joy! not secure and slow!) or I can visit an E*TRADE branch.

Jackpot! I live next to a major city now – there’s got to be an E*TRADE branch in Washington, DC! I ask her to tell me about visiting a branch. I ask if there are any near Northern Virginia. She tells me no, there are not. She tells me I can go to their branch in New York. I try to roll my eyes as audibly as possible. I ask if there are any in Washington, DC. She tells me there’s one in Seattle. Finally, I say “District of Columbia” and she gives me the address of the DC branch. Excellent.

So, I’ll just need to take in my license and that letter with all of my personal information (account number, my address, my date of birth, the last four digits of my Social Security number…) to a branch and they’ll unlock my account.

Later that day: My phone rings, and it’s the same customer service rep from earlier in the day. She asks if I’m planning to fax in my information before 6pm that day. “Um, no, I still don’t have access to a fax machine.” After reminding her that I plan to visit their DC branch, she tells me the real reason she called: the fact that my license has a hole in it will be a problem. See, my license has a hole in it because I just moved to Virginia, and I just applied for my Virginia driver’s license. So they punched a hole in my New York driver’s license, gave me a piece of paper that’s a “temporary Virginia license” and I was waiting for my new license in the mail.

She tells me that I’ll need to fax in a copy of my passport as well. Apparently the fact that I wasn’t faxing anything just wasn’t getting communicated after the third time, so I dropped that and noted that I would need to bring my passport with me to E*TRADE as well.

Tuesday, September 15th: I arrive at E*TRADE’s office, fully stocked with identifying information and the signed letter they asked for with all of my information in it (account number, my address, my date of birth, the last four digits of my Social Security number…). The guy at the desk pretty much doesn’t have a clue what I’m talking about, but he takes my letter and ID, and goes to talk to his boss. He comes back, lets me know that he faxed my info off to the main office, and that my account should be unlocked by the afternoon of the next day.

Wednesday, September 16th, late afternoon: Somewhat unsurprisingly, my account isn’t unlocked yet. I call E*TRADE again, give my info over the phone again (account number, my address, my date of birth, the last four digits of my Social Security number…). The rep says she’ll call me back.

I do get a phone call back, letting me know that the account has been unlocked and that I’ll have to set up the transfer again.

Lessons Learned

Sometimes, you only get one shot to prove that you’re you. Yes, eventually I was able to call in and bring in enough information and identification to prove it, but it would have been much easier to just get the questions right in the first place. But as we’ve seen in both my case and Rick’s, sometimes you just don’t have that option. Yes, I’m keenly aware that I should have called my dad before braving the questions on my own. But in Rick’s case, they asked him about someone that no one in his family had ever heard of. There was no way that Rick could have ever passed the quiz “about him.”

Creepy shadow companies collect information about you, and it affects you. I don’t know what “third party agency” it is that collected this information and developed this quiz on me, but I certainly don’t like it. I don’t believe I should be required to call my father in order to prove to a company that I’m me. They shouldn’t be asking about my father’s wife. Information about a woman I barely know should not be used as a quiz for my identity.

There were four questions about Gail XXXXX. And only one question about me directly, and one question about my mother. If the four questions had been about my mother, my father, or my other stepmother (my mother’s wife), I could have answered them. Two thirds of the questions in the quiz contained a name unfamiliar to me.

Check your specialty reports once a year. If you’ve read these two stories of how awful it can be when the information is inaccurate, and you still don’t pull your specialty reports and verify the information on them, I won’t feel sorry for you if something goes wrong one day.

Have an emergency fund. The reason I never freaked out during the whole process was that I had an easily-accessible emergency fund at ING Direct. I knew that even if E*TRADE kept my account locked for months, I would be able to pay that credit card bill, and the one after it. This kept me level-headed (though still annoyed) throughout the whole process. It also saved me a little money, in that I didn’t feel the need to run out and pay to have my information faxed. Because I have an emergency fund, I had the freedom to demand that E*TRADE conform to my schedule, not the other way around.

16 responses to “Identity Verification Sucks! (Again!)”

  1. Sam

    This actually has me thinking… we should probably be keeping TWO emergency accounts, with equal balances, at separate banks. Then, if one bank locks your emergency account during a, well, emergency, you’ll still have the other account to fall back on.

  2. Hanna

    Wow, I agree with Sam too. Not only for problems like verifying your identify, but also if the site just plain shuts down.

  3. MLB

    We tout technology in banking, finance, healthcare, etc., etc. (in short, in just about every situation), but there are of course the horror stories. My girlfriend currently can’t access her PRIMARY bank account after M&T bought Provident Bank because the acquiring bank erroneously designated her daughter (a late add-on to the account) as the “authority” for the account. Multiple attempts have been made to rectify this, but 3 late electric company payments and a late mortgage payment later, it remains unresolved. I suppose that the big acquiring banks in these deals expect some attrition, but I can’t see how they’ll keep customers in the long term if this type of thing keeps up.

  4. Sallie's Niece

    Wow that sucks. I’m sorry you have to go through all of that but luckily you had a backup emergency fund.

  5. Mr Credit Card

    It makes you wonder that perhaps sometimes, having a relationship with an old fashion broker or financial adviser is much better since you are only one phone call away and these things would have never come up.

    I guess there is a price to be paid for “low cost” – DIY online stuff?

  6. Alpine path

    The same thing happened to me with ETrade. I was in India and had to pay my tuition fee for the Fall semester and ETrade blocked me out because I was not accessing the account from the usual location. Sadly, I didn’t have enough money in my other bank account and paid the fee late. Thankfully, my university considered it not to be my fault(paying late) and refunded the late fee. From then on, I usually move the money for large purchases atleast a few weeks in advance from online bank accounts. Lesson well learned!

  7. Griffin Boyce

    I’ve had similar problems when living in a town with two “Julie Boyce”s who were (at one point) with my dad. One being my mother and one being my brother’s mother. A lot of agencies don’t bother to list someone by SSN or date-of-birth, but cross-reference spouse/partner etc.

    My mother reportedly had more trouble in this area. “Yes, I’m her, no not HER, the other one. Yes, I’ve also had a child with him.” etc They both go by their maiden names now (Julie F vs. Julie W., so no more mixups).

    Which I find totally hilarious btw. =)

  8. Chris

    You’ve convinced me to run the reports. What a nightmare. I know we’ve helped people try to invest in CDs where banks have online processes. And about 50% of the time, they are unable to answer the majority of the questions.

  9. Mike the Mover @ national movers

    Wow, you sure had to jump through a lot of hoops to get that taken care of. On the one hand I agree with you about this being somewhat of an unreasonable way to verify your identity. On the other hand, I think you should be glad that they are this strict. What if someone was actually trying to pretend to be you? There was no way anyone but you was going to transfer that money – no way anyone else could have answered those questions. I think that should be a little comforting; the inconvenience is worth the security. As long as it works properly.

  10. Lee

    That is really quite frightening. I experienced my first external verification exercise when I signed up for a share trade account recently. I knew all the answers, but the “where the hell are you getting these questions from?” thought did cause me to sit back and think.

    Buried in the small print was “Question Data By Equifax”. hmm…

  11. Lee

    Haha glad I could be of assistance! 🙂

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