Ron Book is one of the most powerful lobbyists in one of the most important states in the country. But his influence and his fortune can’t stop a crime that started last year – and keeps getting worse.
More than a decade ago, Newsweek gushed that in Florida, Ron Book’s “relentlessness as a lobbyist is legendary.”
“He carries three cell phones,” the news magazine wrote in 2009.”During the legislative session in Tallahassee, you can often see him juggling calls in each ear while also wheedling a passing lawmaker.”
Book is now 67 years old. He’s still relentless. But now he dreads answering the phone.
The legendary lobbyist – who can intelligently debate growth management and tax policy, and who has championed legislation against sex offenders and represented the Miami Dolphins – has been defeated by identity thieves.
When he’s with a client, his phone can vibrate a half-dozen times. Instead of seeing the name of a legislator or business leader on the screen, it’s a bank or credit card company.
“I have gotten up from meetings because it’s American Express calling,” Book says. “I come back angry.”
What infuriates him – and sends him into profanity-laced tirades – is that these banks and credit card companies are constantly leaving him with the feeling that they’re accusing him of ripping them off. Even though he’s filled out all the proper paperwork to report that thieves have stolen his identity. Even though he’s spoken to law enforcement. Even though he’s reviewed every expense and deposit many times over.
“It eats up time almost every single day, including weekends,” Book says. “There are days I’ve sat on the phone for several hours. You get hundreds of charges to go over with them. It takes forever. Charge by charge.”
Book scrolls through his phone’s call log. “The last one was an hour and 49 minutes,” he says with a curse and a sigh. “That was yesterday.”
Now Book is finally fed up. He’s going on the attack against identity thieves.
“They messed with the wrong guy,” Book says through gritted teeth.
A common story
How Book got here is a long, sordid story, and one we’ll tell shortly. But more interesting is how he’s handling it now. Because what he does next might matter to more than just himself. It might help the millions of Americans who are suffering from the most common crime in America. Multiple studies have shown that 1 in 20 adults will have their identity stolen at some point in their lives. That’s 13 million people – and in 2019 alone, $17 billion in fraud losses.
Yet as Book has learned, many financial institutions seem either unprepared or “just don’t give a damn.” Even those who have tried to resolve his fraud – he cited American Express as among the best – seem two steps behind the bad guys.
On Nov. 18, Book made one last call to Bank of America, which sent him a letter a few days earlier that began, in large type, “Ronald Lee Book, if you haven’t already, please make your credit card payment.”
Of course, those $5,067 in charges weren’t his. Identity thieves had run up hundreds of Uber Eats bills – more than one human being could eat or even feed to his coworkers.
Book called the phone number on the letter – as he’s done dozens of times before – but he was adamant that this would be the last time.
He had to wind his way through a half-dozen automated prompts that he’s memorized by now, including one that insisted, “Please enter the amount you want to pay.”
Interestingly, when he said, “nothing,” the software couldn’t handle that.
“Enter the amount using dollars and cents.
Book sighed. “I keep entering none,” he said.
Finally, Book got what he wanted: “For all other services, please remain on the line.” A man picked up, and Book said as calmly as he could…
I am calling you about an ongoing dispute that has gone on for many, many, many months. It deals with hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of fraudulent charges with Uber Eats. I’m frankly fed up with it, and I don’t want to waste your time. I need to speak to a management-level person or a supervisor. I have sent multiple letters, including a complaint letter I’ve filed with the Controller of Currency and the CFPB. I don’t want to be disrespectful to you, sir, but I’m not going to call you again. I’m just going to go to court.
After 14 minutes on hold, Book spoke to a woman who wasn’t a manager or supervisor. Losing his patience, Book repeated himself. The woman put him on hold for seven minutes before returning and saying, “I will get you over to a supervisor, just one moment.”
One moment became five more minutes. Then a manager in Bank of America’s Billing Disputes Department in Tennessee picked up.
Book said in a tight voice, “I’m going to do my best to maintain some level of calm.” He then repeated his story, which goes something like this…
- An envelope was stolen from the mailbox in his office building. Inside was a check to Book’s accounting firm. Thieves manipulated that check and cashed it for themselves.
- Then they started counterfeiting other checks in Book’s name.
- Having found a lucrative victim, “They sold my personal information on the dark web.”
- After that, the fraudulent charges skyrocketed, and the thieves even owned bank accounts in Book’s name.
“You won’t hear from me again,” Book said. “I won’t do this again. I’m now on the phone 35 minutes and 29 seconds. I’m not playing around with you guys anymore. I’m going to get this resolved one way or another. Thank you for letting me vent. I’m prepared to listen to you now.”
After a short pause, the man on the other end of the line said, “I’m with the Billings Department, not our Fraud Department.”
Book, almost yelling but not quite, said, “That’s fine, but I’m not going through that whole explanation again!”
Book went back on hold, and as soft-rock music played in the background, a city manager from a municipality that Book is representing in the state Legislature called. “I’m sorry, I’m dealing with Bank of America, I’m going to have to call you back.”
Eight minutes later, the man from the Billings Department returned and said, “Mr. Book, just checking in with you to let you know I’m still here. Thank you for your patience.” Then he clicked off.
Book’s patience was tested for another 15 minutes. It was now over an hour and counting. At an hour and 11 minutes, with the same piano tune repeating at least a dozen times, Book hung up. He didn’t expect any other result.
But after dozens of these hours-long calls, Book has heard this repeatedly: “Your call may be monitored for quality assurance.” Well, he plans to subpoena all those calls, including this last one. He plans to go on the offensive. He plans to go to court.
When Debt.com tried contacting Bank of America – with Book’s permission – calls and emails to the national and southern regional office were not returned.
“They don’t care,” he says. “It amazes me.”
Worse than usual
None of it amazes me or the Debt.com team. Book’s story is one we’ve heard before.
We’ve been helping consumers with debt and identity theft issues for decades. If your identity is stolen, you’ll need to deal with each of your banks separately and abide by their rules. We advise victims to place a fraud alert and a credit freeze with the credit bureaus – it’s a simple process but dealing with your banks can be a very different story.
You must contact each bank separately as soon as possible so you won’t be liable for any of the fraudulent charges. This can be daunting if you have multiple accounts and credit cards – currently there is no centralized way to handle reporting identity theft to all parties that need to be involved.
Book has learned that lesson, plus a few others.
For starters, he didn’t know what a “fraud alert” or “credit freeze” was – because let’s face it, he didn’t need to know. Book is a busy guy, topping his profession in Florida by earnings-per-lobbyist, topping $2.6 million in just the first quarter of the year alone.
He’s a smart guy, so after getting ripped off the first time, Book searched online for what to do next. “We locked down all credit reporting agencies,” he says.
What Book means is that he notified the Big Three credit bureaus – Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion – by following a standard four-step process. That includes a fraud alert (which makes it tougher to open new lines of credit) and a credit freeze (which restricts access to your credit report). Book says this was simple to do, but unfortunately, it only protects against future identity theft. He was already a super-victim.
The most extreme example of that was the day he got a call from a credit union in Livermore, California. They had questions about suspicious activity in his account. Problem was, Book never opened an account there. He didn’t even know where Livermore was.
“I asked what documentation they had when I opened the account,” Book recalls. “She said they had my passport. I didn’t believe that. My passport is locked in my safe at work. I don’t let it out of my safe. I asked to Facetime with her, and she put a piece of paper with a copy of my passport up on that screen. I’m looking at it, and I felt so violated. That took it to a different place for me.”
Now Book is heading to a new place himself, one few have ventured into. He’s taking the fight to the thieves – and to the banks.
The story on Book
Book’s experience might be extreme, but lesser forms of identity theft are common – especially in Florida. Personal finance site WalletHub has a research project on identity theft that lists Florida as the 11th-worst state for vulnerability to identity theft.
Interestingly, Florida was the largest state in the Top 15 of the WalletHub study. Texas ranked 16th, New York 21st, and California 25th. Even in our hyper-partisan era, it’s interesting that the Top 3 were Washington (blue state), Colorado (purple state), and Kansas (red state).
If Book succeeds in his plans, he might help residents in all of those states. For starters, Book has filed complaints with two federal agencies – one typical, one not.
The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau was created during the Obama administration and “enforces Federal consumer financial law and ensures that markets for consumer financial products are fair, transparent, and competitive.” But big banks have little to fear from the CFPB, Book says.
So he also filed a complaint with an agency few have ever heard of: the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. This bureau in the Treasury Department “charters, regulates, and supervises all national banks.” Big banks do fear the OCC, Book says.
He mailed two detailed complaint letters right before the holidays. He has no idea when (or if) he’ll hear back.
“I don’t know, I’ve never dealt with these agencies before,” Book says. “You gotta walk away believing that someone will respond. If I don’t get a response, I’ll send it to them a second time. If I don’t hear a third time, I might turn to a member of Congress.”
With Book, that’s not an idle threat. Neither is this: He’s figuring out how to sue Bank of America and any other financial institution that is either ignoring the problem or treating him like the perpetrator.
“I have given thought to some type of civil action that would get a court to proactively look at this,” he says. “I just don’t know under Florida law if they have that authority to grant relief.”
The case would look something like this: Book would represent himself in court. As an attorney, he’d argue that Bank of America is breaching its contractual obligations to its customers by being “unfair, arbitrary, and by their very nature, abusive.”
He doesn’t expect to win. Or lose. But he expects to make some noise.
“What you’re trying to do is survive a motion to dismiss,” he says. “You’re trying to get a court to ask, ‘What is the law here?’ You might as well talk to the sole of your shoe rather than talk to them.”
It’s not just Book. Debt.com twice emailed both the national Bank of America public information office and the southeast regional office but never got a reply. (To which Book wryly commented, “What a surprise.”) Needless to say, Bank of America has a lot of lawyers. Book is undaunted.
He believes he can bring his case to county court instead of circuit court. “That’s on my turf, so good luck to them,” Book says. “County court is an easier pathway to a timely decision.”
Awareness before winning
A Debt.com survey for December’s National Identity Theft Prevention and Awareness Month revealed 4 in 10 respondents had been victimized by ID theft – and nearly 9 in 10 were surprised at that, despite it being the most common crime in the country.
That survey also showed most Americans lose $2,500 or less to ID thieves. Book has lost much more. He’s already paid Bank of America more than $14,000 in charges he didn’t make, because the bank insisted. Book assumed he’d get that money back when the bank investigated.
Win or lose, Book is sure to get the attention of everyone who deals with identity theft. He knows his profession has given him access to powerful people and an education that many don’t have.
“What does the average Joe and average Mary do in my situation? They just get abused and don’t know where to go to get any kind of relief. That’s the real problem,” Book says. “That’s why I got to go on offense.”
Book ends the story with a comparison that sounds like an opening statement in his court case…
Imagine a bank robber goes into a bank, sticks it up, and steals $10,000. Now say there’s a deposit slip attached to the money. He took it right as you were depositing it. What if the bank said it’s your problem? What if they told you your money is gone, but you could call them and try to work it out? And they kept you on the phone for hours? And then they demanded the money back?
Book pauses, takes a breath, and says, “I’m not going to sit around and play dead. They have done wrong, and I’m going to deal with it.”
Published by Debt.com, LLC