Friday, January 13, 2006

The girl in the mirror

Identities confused & abused

Someone borrowed my niece's identity last year. "Becky" gave up her mail box at the local post office and filed a change-of-address form. Nevertheless, the next person who rented the mail box found herself receiving a check made out to my niece. It was a commission check from the multi-level marketing company Becky had signed up with as a cosmetics salesperson.

It turned out that the young woman who now had Becky's old mailing address was not an honest person. First, she forged an extra zero onto the check to push the amount into the thousands. Second, she traveled to a nearby city and used the check to purchase a used car. The car cost less than the face value of the forged check, so the identity thief asked for her change in cash. That's when things began to unravel.

The sales representative told the young woman to come back later in the day for her change. It would have to be in the form of a check signed by the manager of the car dealership. Thinking she had just about pulled it off, the identity thief drove off to kill a few hours. However, it was a police officer rather than the manager who was waiting for her when she returned. No doubt concerned that her rap sheet would otherwise be too short, the miscreant jumped back into her car and led the police a merry chase at high speed, which ended in a wreck and an arrest.

It took weeks for Becky to straighten out the mess that the identity thief created with her fraudulent use of Becky's name and forged commission check.


Becky's story has a happy ending because the damage to her identity was both local and limited. It was a nuisance rather than a disaster. However, it certainly spooked other members of the family. We have a natural streak of paranoia, which appeared to find its most dramatic expression in my mother (Becky's grandmother). Mom's wish for Christmas was a powerful paper shredder, which she promptly began to use to chew up her discarded mail and financial statements. I noticed she was even shredding the stacks of mail-order catalogs she had received in order to ensure that no one could read the name and address on them.

I explained to Mom that fewer things were easier to find out about a person than her address. It was the height of futility, as well as a complete waste of time, to patiently reduce each catalog to confetti. That seemed to ease her mind a bit.

Then it was my turn.

A local felon has my name.

In fact, he has exactly my name except for middle initial. And my name is (I thought) moderately unusual. Furthermore, the felon's name is a matter of public record and is available on an on-line database maintained by the state's Department of Justice.

Isn't that a kick in the teeth?

I have as much of the family's innate paranoia as anyone—even Mom. In my case, though, I suppose I want people to know my address so that they can distinguish me from the felon, who lives in a nearby city rather than in my own town (thank goodness). Even so, I can readily imagine all manner of scenarios in which identity confusion blights my life. If I were applying for a job or looking for a new place to stay, I can see in my mind's eye how easily a potential employer or landlord might type my name into the DoJ database and promptly get a hit. Unless he or she clicked on the right button for some additional details, the potential employer or landlord could just end up scratching my name off the list without ever discovering that the felon and I are two entirely different people despite sharing the same name (I'm a little older, he's a little heavier, I'm a good citizen, he's a convicted felon, ...).

While the lesson is clear, I hope you won't mind if I belabor the point just a little. Of course, you should be vigilant in the protection of your identity, although try not to go overboard the way Mom did. However, please do be careful of the identities of others, too. I, for one, would thank you.


Anonymous said...

Besides shredding mail order catalogs, which my kitten does for fun anyway, what is a person to do?

Signed--loyal reader who hopes that paranoia isn't contagious

Zeno said...

Mom is less worried about the mail-order catalogs now, but she's still attentive to unsolicited credit card offers. Those deserve to be shredded, or at least torn up, before they go into the paper recycling bin. I'm also diligent with credit card slips that bear the card's full number. Don't throw those away without thorough destruction. One restaurant I frequent prints the full number on the "merchant copy" and a truncated version on the "customer copy", which are otherwise identical. I always sign the customer copy and carry away the merchant copy. Why should I leave my credit card number floating around in their establishment on a loose piece of paper?

My niece would have been well advised to hang on to her mailbox until the last commission check had shown up, but changing addresses always entails risks that are difficult or impossible to control.