How easy is it to open a cable television account using someone else’s identity?
Pretty darned easy.
And now, because of one couple’s experience, New Jersey may get new legislation to protect consumers from this kind of identity theft.
In May 2015, James and Margaret Aumack came home to a phone call that they thought was from a credit card company trying to solicit business.
The company kept calling, and finally, James Aumack, 72, decided to call the company back.
Using the *69 service on his phone, he reached a debt collection firm called Southwest.
Aumack said the rep started yelling that the couple owed money.
“He said that we had a Comcast bill of $1,400-plus,” Aumack said. “I responded that we didn’t owe anybody because I pay all bills within 24 hours of getting them. He didn’t care.”
Aumack, who said he’s had Comcast service at his Cape May home for at least 20 years, called the provider, asking if it had his Social Security number associated with an account.
Yes, Aumack said a rep confirmed.
In Irvington. That’s about 150 miles from Aumack’s home.
“They wouldn’t call the collection agency to tell them to stop the telephone calls,” he said. “Even when I proved that I was in Florida when this contract was written, they didn’t care.”
He then spoke to a supervisor, who assigned the case a number.
Aumack said he asked the supervisor if the company had another Social Security number in the files with his name and a different address.
“They told me that they weren’t required to do that,” he said. “I asked if they asked for a photo ID of the person who opened the account. They said they’re not required to do that.”
Aumack also asked if there was a photo or video of the account being opened.
“They again said that they didn’t have to do that,” he said. “If they had done even one of the above things, they would have had reason to believe that this person wasn’t who he said he was. He was a criminal committing fraud.”
The couple next went to file a report with Cape May police.
The next morning they heard from a detective.
“He explained that he was in touch with Comcast and that they had my name and Social Security number. That was used to open an account at an address in Irvington,” Aumack said.
The detective said there was probably very little hope of catching the thief, Aumack said, and he instructed the couple how to submit whatever paperwork would be needed to clear their names.
Next, Aubach said, he spoke to Comcast’s legal response team.
A rep gave the case another reference number.
Auback said he asked why Comcast did not “use due diligence when screening new customers.”
The rep said he couldn’t help, Auback said he was told, and he was given contact information for the office of the president.
Auback said he wrote a letter for the president’s office, and he received a call.
The rep gave Aumack his third case number, and the rep said she directed the collections company to stop the calls, Aumack said.
To prove who he was, Aumack said, he supplied tax forms, property tax and water bills, and phone bills to prove he didn’t live in Irvington.
Then the couple filled out paperwork to notify the Federal Trade Commission and the three major credit bureaus.
They also visited their bank to take photos that would appear to bank employees whenever their account was referenced — just in case.
Next, Aumack wrote a letter to his state senator, Jeff Van Drew. Aumack shared his experience and asked the senator to introduce a bill that would require photo identification before someone could open an account with a cable provider.
Aumack said he met with Van Drew and said the senator seemed to like the idea.
He was later given a copy of a draft of legislation, an amendment to P.L. 1972, c. 186, which he shared with Bamboozled.
It would require a customer applying to establish service to provide two proofs of identification, including a driver’s license, a birth certificate, a passport or other government-issued identification.
We asked Van Drew’s office about the status of the legislation.
“We are still researching the most practical way to do this so it can actually pass the legislature,” a spokeswoman said.
She promised to send Bamboozled a copy of the legislation when it was ready.
WHAT IS REQUIRED?
We reached out to cable television providers to see what they do require before a consumer can open an account.
Comcast, which serves more than a million customers in New Jersey, said in Aumack’s case, “a third party independently obtained all the personal information they needed to set up a fraudulent account in Mr. Aumack’s name.”
It said it takes customer protections seriously, but it wouldn’t tell us what information a customer needs to provide to set up service.
So we called the 800-number, and a rep said customers need to provide an address, email and phone number, and a Social Security number and date of birth for a credit check.
That’s all we wanted to know.
We next contacted Optimum, which was previously owned by Cablevision and is now owned by Altice.
It, too, said customer privacy is important.
For that reason, a spokeswoman said, it doesn’t share its procedures publicly but customers could call if they had questions.
So we called its 800-number, and a rep told us it required the same information as Comcast. But, the rep said, it doesn’t do a credit check. Instead, it asks for the Social Security number to make sure no one else has an account with that number and that the caller doesn’t have an old debt with the company.
Verizon’s spokesman was more forthcoming. The company asks for the address where a customer is requesting service, the customer’s name, Social Security number and date of birth to verify credit, said spokesman Laurence Gibson. He said the company also asks for an email address and phone numbers to arrange installation and for future communications.
Bamboozled thinks legislation to require better customer identification is a good, common sense idea.
A Social Security number was once a reliable way to prove your identity. But today, there have been so many hacks, data breaches and scams that you can bet many Social Security numbers are vulnerable and too public to be relied upon as the main form of someone’s identification.
Aumack believes the fix could be easy.
“In our case, a simple search of the Social Security identifier numbers already in use on the Comcast system would indicate that there was already a contract with Comcast,” he said. “The next question would be to ask, ‘Can you please tell me where your other service address is?'”
He said the question and a computer search probably would have taken a Comcast rep about twenty seconds, and then the scam never would have happened.
Another option could be to issue PIN numbers instead of using a Social Security number for existing customers, Aumack suggested.
“The guy who used my Social Security number probably bought it and had no idea where I lived. He simply had a number and a name,” Aumack said. “All we’re trying to do is set up barriers making it much harder to pull this stunt off.”
He said he believes the companies have a responsibility to protect customers, and in doing so, they will protect themselves.
“This will take some extra training of its intake staff. In the long run everyone, except the criminals, will be safer and happier,” Aumack said.
What do you think? Let us know in the comments section below.
Have you been Bamboozled? Reach Karin Price Mueller atBamboozled@NJAdvanceMedia.com. Follow her on Twitter @KPMueller. FindBamboozled on Facebook. Mueller is also the founder of NJMoneyHelp.com. Stay informed and sign up for NJMoneyHelp.com’s weekly e-newsletter.