A cautionary tale of a guy who was only trying to pay a bill

checking accountA friend of mine just recently became a victim of identity theft. So naturally, as someone who writes about banking issues, I've decided to turn his story into a cautionary tale.

My 64-year-old friend, a former neighbor, is retired and living in Los Angeles. I won't tell you his name because he's an extremely private guy and he doesn't want his name used. He's also in the beginning stages of Lou Gehrig's disease, commonly known as ALS. In other words, this guy has enough problems without me publicizing his name. But for the sake of the story, let's call him "Chuck."

Last week, Chuck discovered that a withdrawal of $143 had been made from his checking account. He thought that was odd because he'd had no bill for $143. So he contacted the bank, where the teller, at first, seemed to think that somehow another account had been opened up with the exact same account number as my friend. The teller said he'd look into things but that the money appeared to be a human error.

The next day, another check, also for more than $100, was cleared from Chuck's account. So Chuck called the bank again, and it was soon determined that somebody had opened an account in Chuck's name and was helping himself to Chuck's money. In fact, whoever did this went grocery shopping and to a drug store and wrote checks in Chuck's name.

How did this happen? Chuck thinks he knows. Several weeks before, he'd prepared a payment to his credit card company and put the envelope out for his mail carrier to pick up, but the check never made it there. The logical guess seems to be that the identity thief helped himself to the mail in Chuck's mail box, pulled out the payment -- and the check -- and made up his own checks, complete with Chuck's checking account number.

Identity theft is never a good thing, but in this case, it's even worse. As I mentioned, Chuck's been living with a fatal disease, and he has almost no family members he can count on. He found himself consumed with worry this weekend, wondering if this identity thief, once he discovers this checking account is no longer in business, might come and seek revenge.

I told him that's extremely unlikely since this thief most likely expects the account to be closed soon. In fact, the thief was probably pleasantly surprised to make his two purchases and have the check accepted. He's probably a serial thief, not a one-time murderer bent on revenge, and will probably stay far away from Chuck and, instead, hit up some other homes in a far-flung neighborhood -- unless he's caught.

I touched on this exact scenario in a WalletPop blog last year, mentioning how in Kansas City, Missouri, there'd been quite a few thefts of checks out of mail boxes, which were then followed by a rash of forged checks. Of course, I have no proof that Chuck's check was stolen this way, but given that he mailed a check to the credit card company about two and a half weeks ago and it never reached its destination, it seems logical.

After discovering the problem, Chuck immediately set up a new checking account and is in the process of contacting various companies that automatically withdraw or deposit payments in his old account. What a hassle! It's no wonder many people end up sticking with their banks, even if they're not happy with them; once you set up a checking account, it's almost more trouble than it's worth to change. But the paperwork problems were just the tip of the iceberg: The emotional toll this took on Chuck was probably worse.

The takeaway from this? Seems to me this is just one more reason to consider paying your bills online. Sure, hackers can theoretically rob you from your computer, but one thing seems certain: For those people who don't trust the concept of banking online, I'm not sure they should feel safer paying bills the old-fashioned way, either.

Geoff Williams is a frequent contributor to WalletPop. He is also the co-author of the new book "Living Well with Bad Credit."
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