OLD LYME, Conn. — Norman E. Emerson survived active duty in three wars and withstood all the usual adversity that comes a man's way over the course of 88 years.
He expects also to survive the recent theft of his identity, although it's been quite a hassle. Thieves used his personal information to create an online account with his bank and siphoned $8,755 from Emerson's checking account over a two-month period. They also hijacked his Social Security number and created an online account, leaving him without a month's payment.
"I hope other people won't get 'sucked in' in the same manner," the affable Navy veteran and longtime community volunteer said during an interview at his home in Point O' Woods.
Emerson said he thinks he may have given out personal information over the phone or written a check to someone who used his identify to create fraudulent accounts and steal his money. Over the past couple of weeks, with the help of a trusted relative and in consultation with his attorney, town police and bank officials, Emerson has started to straighten out his finances and has contacted the three major credit reporting agencies to put "fraud alerts" on his accounts.
His bank of some 70 years, the Rocky Hill-based Nutmeg State Federal Credit Union, assured Emerson — after he said he and others "made a lot of noise" — that the stolen money would be restored to his account. His $1.95 a month investment in the bank's fraud protection program, of which he said he was unaware, is paying off.
As a result of the experience, Emerson has vowed not to give out his personal information over the phone or write checks unless he knows the recipient is legitimate. He admitted he has participated in sweepstakes or "contests" in the past and still gets calls on a daily basis from people who assure him he has won millions of dollars. The callers, Emerson said, have phone numbers that "don't exist" when he tries to call them back.
Old Lyme police Officer Martin E. Lane said it appears Emerson is the victim of a complex series of electronic transactions and that the perpetrators, who were receiving computer-generated checks, could be anywhere. "It appears everything has been done through the Internet," he said.
Electronic financial crimes, some carried out by sophisticated global syndicates, are increasingly difficult to solve, but Lane, a retired state trooper with experience in obtaining court orders and other information needed to trace monetary transactions, said he is actively investigating. "There's always a trail," he said. "You just hope it comes to where you want it to and you don't get sent from one place to another."
The case could come to a dead end, Lane said, or he could develop information that could be packaged and handed over to an agency with a wider reach and more resources. "The criminals target people who are unsophisticated with technology and a bit naive when it comes to the new means of financial crimes," he said. "I think as a senior he (Emerson) has provided information unknowingly."
Emerson, who hasn't used a computer in years, said he faithfully checks the bank statements he receives in the mail "item for item" to reconcile his account balance. He said he noticed immediately three unauthorized withdrawals for the month of May and one for the month of June totaling $8,755. The online transactions were associated with sequential check numbers that Emerson had not used.
He discovered the Social Security fraud in April after receiving a letter from the Social Security Administration that thanked him for opening an online account. When he called to report that he never created the account, he was told his Social Security number was being used by someone in Tennessee who had a bank account in West Virginia.
Emerson, who has limited mobility due to diabetes and other medical conditions, said he had to go to the Social Security office in New London to prove his identity. Sitting on his scooter in his freshly painted kitchen Thursday morning, he joked that he hopes law enforcement catches up with the thieves before he does.
John Holt, president and chief executive officer of the Nutmeg State Federal Credit Union, said all financial institutions, including Nutmeg, are audited constantly and spend an enormous amount of money on systems designed to "keep up with the criminals out there." Holt said he has emphasized in customer newsletters and television appearances that people should not give out their Social Security and bank account information.
"We say it all the time," he said. "Don't give that out. We won't ask for it. We already have it."
In Emerson's case, Holt said, the bank has worked with him diligently and has a file "a mile thick."
"Because of this (fraud protection) service, and he has it, we're ready to close the case and he'll have his money back," Holt said Thursday evening.