'Don't assume it couldn't happen to you,' warns Halifax identity theft victim
Cases of identity fraud in Nova Scotia have more than tripled since 2019, say RCMP
Holly Cunningham had only heard about identity theft in movies, until it consumed her life.
The 28-year-old server and bartender had her wallet stolen at a Halifax Walmart in August 2021. What followed was a constant stream of credit cards, cellphones, personal loans, bounced cheques, and even health insurance fraudulently taken out in her name.
She found out a Halifax woman was using her identity and reported it to RCMP, but six months later, the situation is still ongoing. Cunningham said dealing with her stolen identity is now part of her daily life.
"You know, when you wake up in the morning, you have your coffee and you check your emails and your social media. I also have to check my [credit rating] every day."
Her situation is not uncommon. The Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre estimates one in five people will fall victim to identity fraud.
But Cunningham doesn't believe identity theft is talked about enough. She wants to warn others, and is also frustrated with how her case has been handled by police.
"I don't think that people realize how easy it can happen," she said. "Just protect yourself. Don't trust everyone. Don't assume that it couldn't happen to you."
Cases of identity fraud rising
Since 2019, cases of identity fraud in Nova Scotia have more than tripled. Numbers provided to CBC News by the Nova Scotia RCMP show 142 identity fraud files were investigated in 2019 in RCMP-policed areas of the province. By 2021, the number of new identity fraud files had risen to 474.
"It is now very common for people to fall victim of identity theft," said Sue Labine, a supervisor with the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre. "It is definitely serious."
Labine said in 2021, the centre received 27,531 reports of identity fraud and 11,094 reports of identity theft within Canada. She said once someone's identity is stolen, the fraud can follow them for years.
"It's better for somebody to assume that it'll never be resolved and to just stay on top of it," she said. "Keeping an eye on credit reports, anything out of the ordinary that does arrive, to really action it right away."
Labine recommended TransUnion and Equifax, consumer credit reporting agencies, as a way to check for fraudulent activity. She advised anyone who notices strange activity under their name to report it to the RCMP and the Canadian Anti-Fraud Centre.
Cunningham discovered her identity was being used by someone else when she got a call from an old friend who works in a cellphone store saying someone came in to pick up two new phones using her identification.
She then checked TransUnion and found 17 inquiries in her name. The report she had filed to Halifax Regional Police about her stolen wallet was escalated to the RCMP.
Since then, her credit score has dropped 200 points. She has a six-year fraud alert on her name, which is designed to notify creditors to take extra steps to verify her identity. She said she feels stress and grief.
"It's all my own responsibility. I am the one that has to make the phone calls to each individual place that she makes an inquiry in my name," she said. "I don't feel like I'm as trusting as a person as I was."
Cunningham feels she did everything right, but said she believes her case was mishandled by the RCMP.
"It was a lot of back and forth. They had misplaced my file number. HRP would tell me my case was with RCMP. RCMP would tell me vice-versa, and it escalated from there," she said. "I didn't have any help. I was my own advocate the whole way."
In a statement, a spokesperson for Nova Scotia RCMP outlined the standard process of dealing with cases of identity fraud.
"As with any complaints received by the RCMP, the matter is assigned to an investigator who follows up with the complainant or victim to obtain further details of what happened," Guillaume Tremblay wrote. "Next steps in the investigation will be guided by the information and evidence collected."
Cunningham kept detailed, up-to-date records of the situation, but heard very little from the officers handling her file.
"I've been left in the dark," she said.
In January, Cunningham discovered her case had been closed. The woman using her identification was caught on surveillance video, but according to Cunningham the RCMP said they were unable to identify her.
"I did my own research and learned that if they close the case because they couldn't identify [her], that I actually was allowed to have access to the video myself and share it publicly," Cunningham said.
So she took to social media — she posted a photo of the person who had been using her identity and asked the public for help.
"About 50 people messaged me with the name of this person … So then they reopened my case," she said. "But still, here we are. She's just out there."
Cunningham is now waiting for news from the RCMP that the issue will finally be resolved.
"I am not going to stop fighting. I'm going to make sure that my case is dealt with."