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Opinion: Drowned Out

Poli Psy


Published September 14, 2005 at 4:00 p.m.

The first clue came on a Saturday night, when a guy called from the fraud department of Dell Computer's credit arm, telling me a new account had been opened using my Social Security number and $3600 worth of equipment ordered. He noticed a suspicious overseas shipping address -- a red flag. The same day a similar email about a credit application arrived from amazon.com. That one had been denied.

I got on the horn to my Visa card issuer, CapitalOne. "Hmm," the woman muttered as she called up my account. "Some unusual activity here." Indeed. As far back as her screen revealed, charges were being made every 30 seconds to three minutes.

A headache sprang to the space behind my eyes. The memory tape screeched backward 10 days. I saw the email urging me to update my PayPal billing information "or risk cancellation of service, Terms of Service violations or future billing problems"; the ghost website to which the clicked URL delivered me, perfect down to the Security Seal; the letters and numbers of my birth date and mother's maiden name as I typed them in. I also recalled that each time I hit Submit, I got bounced back to the previous page.

In hindsight, that Security Seal was a nice touch. So, too, the difficulty in Submitting, considering that a ring of criminal cyber-masters now owns Judith Levine.

To be separated from your legal and financial identity is to be unmoored. You write into your calendar the dates -- every six months from now on -- to visit the Social Security office and order your credit files, checking that no one is working and accruing taxes or debt in your name. You make a police report, hoping it will help if the imposter commits a violent crime and tells the cops she is you. You are enraged each time you have to convince some authority that the real you lives in your body.

I was terrified. "I could go under," I told my partner.

Then New Orleans drowned with its poorest citizens in it. I realized I had no idea what it means to be unrecognized, and go under because of it.

Like everyone else, I watched in horror. Underfunded, the local rescuers were under water. The National Guard was in Iraq. The president was in Arizona, glad-handing.

The newspapers published lists of religious relief agencies; former presidents went on television asking for charity. By Tuesday, Wal-Mart was already back in business, selling mops, socks, and air mattresses. Later, for better PR, the company donated $15 million.

With the president indisposed and the Treasury stacked with past-due notices from foreign creditors, only the corporation and God were left to lend a hand.

And Sri Lanka. It sent $25,000.

Meanwhile, I was trying to rescue my identity. I turned to the corporation and the government. God, if I believed in Him, might have helped more.

I had to review my credit files immediately, to dispute fraudulent new accounts. The recorded voice on the phone told me the reports took two weeks to process. I tried to get a peek online, but I had to use my credit card, which I'd just canceled; a new one would come in two weeks. There was no live person at any credit bureau with whom to discuss this dilemma. The website said a direct phone number would come with the credit file.

To Visa, which touts a "world-class fraud protection," with "a constant eye on your account for any potential fraud activity," I groused that the eye had been shut during a nonstop flurry of world-class fraud on my account. Customer Service referred me to Complaints, where I was told to stop complaining. "You got a Fraud Investigator, didn't you?" the agent asked. Yes, I got Betty L., who had so far missed three appointments. Anyway, he added, "we're not required by law" to notice or inform the customer of suspicious activity.

Citibank had no way to put a new password on my accounts. "But you don't have to worry, Ms. Levine," said Customer Service, "because every time you call, we confirm your identity by asking your address, your Social, your mother's maiden name . . ."

"Yes," I said, for the fourth time, "but the thieves know the answer to those questions. We need a fresh, new question."

"We always ask you . . ." We went through it again.

I had ideas. "How about my brother's middle name? My fifth-grade teacher?"

She got defensive. "What makes you think your information isn't secure with Citibank?" Then she had an idea. "You could change your mother's maiden name."

"But my mother's maiden name is . . . is -- " I stammered, "it's her name."

"You could change it."

I tried to clarify. "I have only one mother. My mother had only one father."

After a while it sank in: My "identity" had nothing to do with my ancestry, my story -- with me. To the corporation I am but a consumer, a collection of credits and debits, stuck together with PINs.

I called the identity-theft hotline at the Federal Trade Commission, the government's consumer protection agency, for help getting my credit file.

"Is there no person I can speak to at any of the three credit bureaus?" I asked.

"No, Ma'am," said the guy, ready to hang up.

By this time, I had read FACTA, the Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act of 2003, most of which is devoted to helping victims clean up the mess, after the fact. The law entitles everyone to one free credit file, but the two-year-old rule had yet to take effect nationwide. As it happens, the Eastern states still had two weeks to wait.

"Don't they have to respond right away to fraud victims?" I asked.

"They're companies," he answered. "They can do what they want to."

"Excuse me," said I. "You're the federal regulator."

"Thank you for educating me."

The picture was getting clearer. The banks make a calculation: easy credit enables fraud. Fraud is costly, but regulation is costlier. So they lobby against regulation. Congress members figure that corporate contributions buy more votes than consumer protection. So they give the industry what it wants, and worry about the citizens later.

A similar calculation was apparently made in 2003, when George W. reversed his father's policy to save Louisiana's wetlands and handed them over to developers. At the same time, rule changes at the Environmental Protection Agency prohibited it from protecting these areas unless they were involved in interstate commerce (and what would that be, alligator bags?). A study by four environmentalist groups concluded that without these natural flood sponges, New Orleans would be wiped out by an ordinary hurricane.

Grover Norquist, the Administration's anti-tax guru, once said he wanted to make the government so small it could "drown in a bathtub." New Orleans is sometimes called a city in a bathtub. This time, it looked as if the baby in the White House was going down the drain, too.

But eight days after the levees broke, the president caught a life preserver: a word. "Bureaucracy is not going to stand in the way of getting the job done for the people," he declared.

Aha. We should not blame racism, or the Iraq war, the denial of global warming, neglect of the country's infrastructure and the abandonment of its cities, or the plunder of the Treasury called tax "reform."

No, the problem was bureaucracy -- too-big government. This was a breathtakingly stroke of spin, with Karl Rove's fingerprints all over it.

The week of my identity theft, I dreamed that someone broke into my house and painted the walls ugly iridescent colors. It could have been a premonition: the red, white, and blue muddy as flood water, iridescent with petrochemicals.

Way before Katrina, all of us -- from jobless, homeless African-American to mortgage-holding white professional -- were being systematically displaced, relieved of our identities as citizens, the collective identity beyond our individual bank accounts and mothers' maiden names. What we saw washing away in the hurricane's wake was the very idea of a public good, whose promotion and preservation is the duty of government, which belongs to all of us.

If we do not rebuild our identity as Americans, in it together, we will all be unmoored. We will drown separately.