Someone has stolen - or at least borrowed - my identity and has been merrily spending his way across the country.
When I was first told of the fraud using my name, I laughed. I don't have a great rating. I pictured some poor sap getting rejected for credit.
But of course, lines of credit are given out these days like loot bags at a birthday party. The fake Paul Henderson has set up no fewer than six credit card accounts and two bank accounts using my old BC driver's licence.
I found that out when ING Direct called to ask me about an application I hadn't made to set up an account. A quick follow-up call to credit bureaus Equifax and TransUnion confirmed the worst. The fake me has spent $10,000 at Future Shop, Sears, Canadian Tire and other stores.
The credit card companies may have been duped into giving credit to someone other than me, but they certainly aren't accepting the blame. I was required to swear four affidavits attesting to the fact that the financial dealings of this other Paul Henderson were in no way mine.
Peter Bleyer, coordinator of the Canadian Consumer Initiative, says it's companies that should be safeguarding the personal information of millions of Canadians.
"The more public-interest education, the better," Bleyer tells NOW. "But the notion that it's consumers' responsibility, and theirs alone, is pretty laughable."
Not only is there a blame-the-victim mentality when it comes to identity theft, but companies are moving to make money off it. One such outfit will monitor your credit 24/7 for about $15 a month.
Federal privacy laws require that businesses have systems in place to ensure that customer information is secure, gathered with consent and not used beyond stated purposes. But our laws don't require, as California's do, that businesses disclose to consumers when leaks of personal info have taken place.
Nor is ID theft itself a Criminal Code offence in Canada.
The attitude of creditors and banks seems to be, why pay to increase security for personal data if guarding against the risk is more expensive than sucking up losses from identity theft? Europe, on the other hand, places the cost of mistakes on companies collecting the data.
RCMP Detective Sergeant Barry Elliott, the founder and coordinator of Phonebusters, the anti-fraud call centre, sees firsthand the numbers, the money lost and the hassle for victims. The number of ID thefts in Canada jumped from 8,178 in 2002 to 13,359in 2003, and Elliott thinks dystopian measures like biometrics and iris scans are inevitable. The irony seems to be lost on him.
"The ID thieves are pushing us in that direction," he says.
But Bleyer counters that since most ID theft comes from sloppy information management by government and business, the crime "must not be used as an excuse to introduce privacy-invasive technologies."
He thinks the freewheeling world of credit granting is at least partly to blame, and suggests bringing services provided by credit bureaus into the public sector. "It's scary when you start to think what a house of cards it all is. It could all implode, with the level of credit out there."
CCI recommends eradicating the use of social insurance numbers for anything other than employment purposes, instituting a credit freeze, making identity theft a criminal offence and requiring business and government to inform consumers about major data leaks.
The Public Interest Advocacy Centre argues in a November 2003 report that "even if consumers took all appropriate security measures, ID theft would remain a serious issue in Canada."
Why? Credit granters are just too keen to give out credit, says John Lawford, co-author of the PIAC report.
"The problem is there's no place here like the FTC (U.S. Federal Trade Commission) where people can go to complain in the first place, so nobody keeps good stats. Nobody knows," Lawford says.
According to Rick Cleary, the president of Equifax Canada, incidents of ID theft are levelling off. Cleary tells NOW that Equifax received about 1,600 identity theft reports a month in 2004, down from 1,700 in 2003. However, calls from people concerned about possible identity thefts rose from 2,500 to 5,000 a month.
Cleary claims that high-tech information-sharing isn't necessarily the problem. Rather, most identity theft is a matter of "old-fashioned dumpster diving and mail interception."
"I'm not sure we need more laws," he says. "I don't know that it's necessarily the fault of companies and businesses. At the end of the day, it's criminals."
The feds aren't saying or doing much about the issue. Department of Justice spokesperson Patrick Charette says, "We're seeing what our options are."
The province seems to be taking a similar approach. Ontario Ministry of Consumer and Business Services spokesperson Julie Rosenberg says it's "a customer relations issue."
I still haven't sorted out my mess, and a number of fraudulent uses of my identity remain on my credit report. Recently, I signed up for a cellphone account. The phone service provider did a quick credit check on me and - conveniently but somewhat disturbingly - I was accepted without a glitch.