Wellington man left with $10k non-existent debt after falling victim to fraud

By Melissa Nightingale

Jaz Hamilton said he was guilty until proven innocent when an identity thief racked up a $10,000 bill with Vodafone in his name.
Jaz Hamilton said he was guilty until proven innocent when an identity thief racked up a $10,000 bill with Vodafone in his name.

A Wellington man has had to clear himself of $10,000 non-existent debt after falling victim to identity fraud.

Jaz Hamilton was forced to "jump through hoops" to prove he didn't rack up the huge bill with Vodafone, despite the fact the company did not actually incur a loss.

Vodafone has apologised for the mistake, saying the account should have been closed after the fraud was detected, but "human error" meant the step was not completed.

Hamilton's wallet was stolen when he was at the gym in November 2015.

Upon discovering the theft he immediately cancelled his cards and driver's licence, but it wasn't until a year later he found out the thief had set up a Vodafone account in his name and had racked up $10,653.91 in debt.

The first Hamilton knew about it was when emails from a debt collection company began appearing in his personal inbox.

"At first they looked suspicious as," he said.

"It looked like phishing from the get go. There was no way it was legit."

But eventually Hamilton decided to call Vodafone - who he has never been a customer with - and check whether there was in fact an account in his name, "on the off chance it was sort of legit".

It turned out the fraudster had tried to order a large number of items from the company, but the fraud was detected and the items returned to Vodafone. The company did not suffer a loss, but due to a mistake, the bill remained in place and was passed on to the debt collectors.

"Apparently Vodafone never actually incurred a loss, so therefore there was no real debt that was passed on to the debt collectors," Hamilton said.

"I've been running around trying to clear my name for a debt that essentially Vodafone was able to detect before I knew about anything."

Hamilton had to send through paperwork and take time off work to visit a Justice of Peace before he could clear the debt, which he finally managed to do last week.

He has also had to fix his previously healthy credit score, which had been "nailed" by the fraud.

"It absolutely plummeted," he said.

"You're essentially guilty until proven innocent. You have to do all the spade work to say 'no, no, somebody grabbed my wallet, somebody racked all this up against me'."

Throughout the process, Hamilton found Vodafone difficult to deal with, as he was continually referred to the debt collectors instead.

"I'm annoyed at Vodafone. I'm not after an apology, but their process involved for these sorts of cases is pretty harsh on the person who's had their identity stolen ... they need to front up and really change the way they deal with those, essentially, victims."

But at the end of the day, Hamilton hasn't forgotten who the bad guy is in the whole situation.

"None of this would have happened if my wallet wasn't stolen in the first place."

A Vodafone spokeswoman said an account was opened in Hamilton's name in January 2016.

"Upon dispatch of the devices, an experienced courier delivery person made a professional judgment call to double check details of the delivery," she said.

"The courier company's head office then contacted Vodafone. After an investigation into the account, a call was made to put a stop to the delivery of the devices.

"It is standard procedure at Vodafone to immediately close an account if it is believed to be fraudulent. In the vast majority of cases this is carried out correctly by our customer services team. It is very unfortunate that - due to a human error - this step was not completed in this instance and the account was mistakenly left active.

"As a result, the account continued to incur a series of charges and fees until it was disconnected. It is likely Jaz was never notified because of the false addresses initially provided by the offending party."

Vodafone apologised for the mistake and confirmed all the debt had been expunged from Hamilton's record.

"We have also taken steps to remind the team of our standard procedure when managing cases of this nature."

Wellington police officer Sergeant Jayne Ross said people need to be aware if they lose any form of identity document, or have one stolen, that they need to report the loss or theft to police, their bank and the issuing authority right away, especially if it has a photograph on it.

"Police are also advising people to be careful of how they dispose of documents such as bank statements, bills and other documents with private information on them," Ross said.

"If your mail goes missing, especially if it is from your bank, contact them immediately so they can consider putting an alert on your account. If you work in the banking sector or anywhere else where you have to check someone's identity using an identity document, take your time. False identity documents can and do look very real. It is good practice to ask for more than one piece of proof of identity.

"If people receive any unsolicited telephone calls from people purporting to be from banks, IRD or even courier delivery companies, they should be very careful before disclosing any personal information, including where they bank, their home addresses and identity document details."

How to protect yourself against online theft:

• Set a password on devices and keep them locked while not in use.

• Don't share passwords or PIN numbers.

• Set up a PIN for your voicemail.

• Be cautious with personal information on social networking sites. If possible, remove your date of birth and address from your page.

• Don't give anyone your personal details, unless you're sure you know who they are.

• Selling your phone? Do a factory reset to remove all your personal data first.

• Think you've been the victim of a scam or fraud? Contact your bank and put a stop on your credit card, tell your local police, and change the passwords and PIN numbers on all your bank accounts.

• Buying online? Make sure the site address starts with HTTPS. This means the website is secure and your personal details and credit card details will be kept secure.

• Lost or stolen device? Change all your passwords of the apps that have auto logins, for example Facebook, email, Twitter.

- NZ Herald

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