Tuesday, June 21, 2005

A Note About Your Privacy...

Oh dear. It seems that hackers have accessed more than 40 million credit card numbers. These numbers are now at risk of being used for crimes ranging from fraudulent transactions, bogus account set-up and outright identity theft. The company involved now admits it was keeping the numbers for research purposes. And in case you were wondering, you, the consumer, cannot call up the card company to ask if yours is one of the stolen numbers. They won’t tell you. And obviously they are not going to take the initiative to inform you if your number was on the list. So you are stuck waiting for some thief to start buying plasma screen TVs, overpriced exercise equipment and male enhancement products in your name. Yup! All those fancy crosscut shredders are doing us no good, as banks, credit information clearinghouses and various government entities are leaking our precious personal information and financial data faster than the Hindenburg lost hydrogen. The economic result could be equally explosive. Let’s see, 40 million cards. That’s about one of every seven Americans. Of course some consumers could have more than one card, so they could have double or triple the fun of trying to track their credit histories and hoping that if anyone is taking a mortgage in their name, that at least it’s beachfront. For years we’ve been advised to shred our receipts and statements before consigning them to the trash. Hold onto those social security numbers for dear life, only yielding them reluctantly when ABSOLUTELY NECESSARY, like whey you’re interacting with any of zillions of health care providers, dealing with a utility, registering for school or signing up for tee ball. You don’t want to disclose the number? Fine. Then go downtown to the main office with your driver’s license during abbreviated business hours and wait in a VERY long line so some clerk can roll her eyes at you. I figure thousands of people have seen my social security number. Its confidentiality is based solely on the personal integrity of each and every one of those thousands of people, and any friends or relatives they may have. The people who collect these numbers generally aren’t in the highest level jobs to begin with. It’s usually a person who may very well be in a different job, with a different company or in an entirely unrelated industry by this time next year. So there is little incentive to protect your personal information in the interest of career longevity, or out of company loyalty. It all hinges on whether it's an honest person handling your sensitive information. If that person doesn’t personally know how to get away with identity theft or credit card fraud, well, there’s a black market out there for hot consumer credit and identity information. You can just sell the lists, and no one will be the wiser. Frank Abingdale, Jr., a pioneering identity thief from the 1960s whose life and escapades have been immortalized in the Leonardo DiCaprio movie Catch Me If You Can, is himself afraid of identity theft. He estimates a crook can come up with anyone’s social security number using internet tools in about 20 minutes, including his own. When these crimes occur, why does it seem like the consumers are the ones who are punished, left on their own to repair credit histories, restore reputations, clear up any misunderstandings about criminal wrongdoing, make zillions of phone calls, send zillions of registered letters, and even then not be guaranteed things will be fixed in a few years, if ever? Why should it be easier for someone else to pretend to be you, than for you to get everything straightened out? After all, I carry my fingerprints everywhere I go (at the ends of my hands), and sometimes I can even reproduce my signature on command. Can’t we at least blame the credit card companies for being so free with their credit that a toddler could sign up for a gold card? For being so careless with information that Nigerians are running ponzi schemes and purchasing yellowcake uranium in our names? For charging interest rates so high that anyone who carries a balance basically gives up and decides the only way out of debt is to contract a life-threatening disease? Why should WE have to track down the information thieves and attempt to fix everything? Why can’t businesses be responsible for ascertaining that the person obtaining credit or buying the big-ticket item is absolutely who they say they are? No picture I.D., no transaction. Then make the penalties for using fraudulent IDs so stiff than an offender would rather burn a Koran in Tehran than face the music at home. One news anchor started agitating for "iris scans" right in the middle of a live interview! So I assume this topic has touched a nerve, at least among people who have credit cards. That excludes possibly the Amish and certain categories of great-grandparents. However don't confuse my concern with willingness to have a theft-proof biometric chip inserted anywhere on my person. I'd sooner pay cash, or barter my Pizza Hut coupons. There was a recent accident where we saw live coverage of a downed helicopter in New York City’s East River. The helicopter was filled with credit card company executives! As a humanitarian aside, I am glad everyone survived the crash. But perhaps a bunch of credit card company executives going underwater in the East River is symbolic of where this country is headed with its credit and identity theft problems. Upside down and gasping for breath.

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