Tuesday, May 02, 2006

The Hungry Crooks

A few months ago, my identity was stolen. A momentary lapse of attention on my part allowed it to happen. You see, I walk to work everyday. It’s only about ten blocks and I enjoy the exercise. Since there is a mailbox right outside where I work, I usually bring my mail with me and drop it off on the way. That day, I had a credit card bill to send, so I put it in my messenger bag and set out down the street. Unfortunately, in my distracted pre-work state, I had laid the envelope precariously near the open flap of my satchel. It must have fallen out soon after I left my apartment, but I didn’t realize this until I was all the way there.

Once I knew that it was missing, I told my boss that I’d be back in a half-hour and went off to look for it. I walked all the way home and then all the way to work again, my eyes scouring the ground from the envelope. It was nowhere to be found, however, and I couldn’t put off my work any longer. At first, I wasn’t especially worried about someone stealing it. I mean, honestly, what kind of wicked fiend go to the trouble of swiping someone’s credit card bill? My concerns were more whether or not I should just go and cut them another check. But what if a good samaritan picked it up and put it in a mailbox for me? I mean, that’s what I’d do if I found some stamped, addressed envelope laying forlorn on the ground. I didn’t want to pay my credit card bill twice. Besides, it was a sloppy, slushy day. There were puddles everywhere and a light, misty drizzle was leaking from the sky. I figured that it would take my bill, at most, two or three minutes to become wholly illegible and runny under such conditions.

As the day went on, however, I grew more and more uneasy. It was my credit card, after all, my account number was written on the check and all the rest of the information was on the bill itself. Like pretty much everyone, I have a pretty high limit, and I could imagine many creative ways an unscrupulous individual–armed with even less information than that–would be able to bilk me into eternal debt. What’s more, my neighborhood and my work’s neighborhood are both home to a low-level criminal element. Many of these people, out on the streets at all hours of the day, will walk off with whatever they can grab. Perhaps an envelope laying in a puddle wouldn’t escape their notice. Perhaps they’d see such a thing and think, “Gee! Maybe there’s something in there that will help me buy crack! Neato!”

For awhile a war went on in my head over whether to think the best of people (they put my bill in the mailbox) or the worst (they swiped it and are now buying cars on E-Bay with it). I vacillated back and forth between the options until my lunch hour, when I decided to log on to my credit card company’s website and find out if they had any advice for dealing with this situation. You can imagine my surprise when, as soon as I accessed my account, a little red box popped up on the screen instructing me to call a toll-free number. I did as I was told and was greeted by a jovial fellow with a distinct Indian accent and the unconvincing pseudonym “Brad”.

“We must be asking you, sir, have you been ordering pizzas?” this “Brad” asked me as soon as I had verified my identity.

“Ummmm...no,” I said.

“This is a problem then,” explained “Brad”, “Because somebody has been. And with your card, too. Do you have your card in your possession right now, sir?”

“Yeah, I’ve got my card. I bet they’re using my bill,” I said, appalled that the whole “expect the worst of humanity” option had been the one that had won out in the end.

“Brad”, however, was unaware of this problem. “Your bill, sir?” he asked.

“I dropped my bill. On my way to work today.”

“You dropped your bill?”

“Yeah. With my check to you guys in it.”

Perhaps I was imagining things, but I thought I could hear the clamor of Mumbai as “Brad” silently pondered my situation. “Ah! And I suppose your check to us had your account number written upon it!” he exclaimed.

“I thought you were supposed to do it that way...”

“Oh, yes, indeed you are, sir! But how devious people are nowadays!”

As “Brad” marveled at this, I was concerned with more prosaic matters. “Just how many pizzas did they buy?” I asked.

“Only one, successfully...” “Brad” said. He then went on to explain that, apparently, the criminals had tried to phone in pizza orders at several restaurants, but it was always declined because of a mistake in the expiration date. From this information, “Brad” and I put our heads together and decided that, since they had my name and account number, but not the expiration date, they must have simply tried place after place, guessing a different expiration date at each one. Eventually, they got it right and successfully ordered a pizza. All the errors up to then, however, resulted in the credit card company’s security computers being flagged and, consequently, to the message that popped up on my on-line account. Once we figured all this out, “Brad” and I took a moment to ponder the wickedness of the human race.

“I can’t believe someone would do that,” I said.

“It is deplorable, yes, sir,” “Brad” concurred.

“I mean, it kind of makes me sick a little.”

“Bad people. Yes, yes. Very bad.”

I sighed deeply then. “I suppose we should close my account and open a new one, right?” I said.

“Already done!” “Brad” chirped and, from there, it was all business as I squared away the details of what I needed to do to get the twenty-five dollar charge taken off my record. I hung up the phone, overwhelmed by the queasy inconvenience of it all. There was a distressing list of things that I suddenly needed to do: I needed to change my checking account, call the credit bureaus to put a fraud alert into my reports, call the police and file a complaint, send off another check to the credit card company, and on and on and on.

I was quite angry about it for an hour or so. Here I was, just a working stiff like anyone else, and some foul wretches are buying pizzas on my dime. Without even sharing with me. What scumbags, I thought, what foul and malicious brigands! I considered going on a vigilante crusade against them. It wouldn’t have been too hard: all I’d need to do was ask the pizza place where they delivered my pizza that day. Then I could go there and deliver them the sternest lecture they had heard in quite some time. Or perhaps I would thoroughly thrash them with my whoopin’-stick. Or maybe both. Or maybe neither.

Eventually, however, the pissed-off phase ended and I was just happy they weren’t smart enough to buy something expensive with my money.