Credit insecurity

My stolen I.D. gets passed around like a joint at a keg party

A single shopping trip changed my entire life.

Until that day, I was comfortably cocooned, feeling safe and anonymous in this giant city. I was and still am attached to my computer, but only for writing, googling this symptom or that and keeping up to date on Brad and Angie’s brood.

When it came to giving away personal information, I always stopped and redirected myself. I interacted fairly old-school but still managed to stay in touch with those I invited into my life. To that end, I gave myself a ridiculous pseudonym on Facebook, my status updates were through a now almost Luddite form of communication, namely email, and I couldn’t even imagine paying bills online.

But when I was offered the new Chip and PIN credit card, touted as the most secure ever, I immediately signed my husband and myself up.

A few months of shopping later, I received a hysterical call from my normally calm and collected mate. I could hear the frantic rustling of papers: our latest credit card statement. Had I, he wanted to know, withdrawn thousands of dollars in cash advances, and, oh, taken a short trip to Windsor recently to stock up on gas and a pair of very expensive jeans?

My stomach sinking, I madly searched my wallet, fully expecting to see an empty spot where I kept my new credit card. Nope, it was right there in its little pocket, the silver chip shining at me, almost smirking.

I was dumbfounded. Someone must have gotten hold of my PIN, but that was impossible. Racking my brain, I could only conjure up one sickening scenario: while I was keying in my PIN somewhere, I was being watched. As the mother of a one- and four-year-old, I generally walk around in a state of foggy exhaustion. Someone could have an entire hand in the back pocket of my jeans and I wouldn’t even twitch.

The credit card company had some explaining to do. We realized that someone had taken out 19 cash advances and done a little shopping at Walmart, yet the company never called to verify that it was me spending $10,000. I’ve never charged one cash advance, let alone 19.

At first, the company insisted that I must have shared my PIN. In its defence, the rep said the expenditures were never questioned because a Chip and PIN card can’t possibly be counterfeited. Well, actually, it can.

After doing some “investigative research,” the card company called us back. Nervously, the caller asked if I’d had a detailed conversation with a representative and passed through the highest level of security clearance. Even with severe mommy brain, I’d remember a phone call with souped-up security clearance.

Someone hadn’t stood behind me in line at a store and memorized my PIN. I’d been robbed of my entire identity. There was a taped phone call to prove it, in which a very accommodating representative kindly changed my PIN for the imposter me.

A woman with a voice very unlike my own answered every necessary question. She knew it all: address, first pet, even my mother’s maiden name. My best friend doesn’t even know my mother’s maiden name. I’d been sold and bought. Was it an inside job? Absurdly, I wonder how much I cost.

I was the perfect mark. A tired mom with a baby daughter, I’d never have caught the double swipe, the seconds it took to get an imprint of my card number and CHIP. I’ll never know which day, which store or which cashier took my card and ran it through twice, giving both of us a paper imprint of my card. I’ll never know who stole my identity and anonymity by selling that piece of paper containing my name and credit card information.

I filed a police report and contacted credit bureaus. After a couple of months, I’d begun to feel everything had gone back to normal – until a collection agency contacted me. And a month later, a bank. Then another. And incredibly, another.

My stolen identity has been passed around like a joint at a keg party. Across Ontario, countless women are showing up at banks flashing driver’s licences with my name to open fraudulent accounts and steal large sums of money. The police and corporate investigators, with whom I’ve developed friendly relationships, tell me my name is being used in an ID theft ring. I am living an episode of a television crime show, which would be quite titillating were it not happening to me.

Going shopping is now a desperate game. I narrow my eyes and eagle-eye every server, checkout person and card-taker. Are they sizing me up to see whether I’m an easy mark (that has been proven) or is it normal eye contact? But I have to move on with my life and not waste time worrying that everyone wants a piece of me.

In some ways, all this has changed me for the better. I’ve become less fearful of giving out my name, because it’s already everywhere. I have wondered, inanely, if the other Samantha Strohs are as happy as I am, but I doubt it. They have to assume someone else’s identity, while I’m quite content with the one I have, though it no longer belongs only to me.

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