Identity theft: a cautionary tale

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'Identity theft', by Chris JohnstonJust a day or two after Christmas we swung cheerily into the drive, holiday music blaring its last. Our disbelieving eyes fixed instantly on the open window. Then the open door. We'd been robbed!

Hearts pounded. We crept towards the house. Music still blaring.

Never has there been such a mess as this. In every room the floor was strewn. Every drawer, every cupboard, every cabinet had been emptied. Even the shoe box we kept Band-Aids and Aspros in. Stuff everywhere.

Touch nothing, we were told. Leave everything as it is. So we trod gingerly through the wreckage, then sat stunned, and waited. The laptop was gone ... and coins from the Salvos dish ... and a red coral necklace ...

The sergeant had been 'on burglaries for three years', he said, but it had been only in the last few months that he had come across so many cases of identity theft. We qualified as victims of identity theft because our personal documents had been taken. All swept up with assorted hardware and carried away in our own green pillow case.

Identity starts, as it always has done, with the name by which one shall be known in the community. From there it grows exponentially. To that certificate of our birth we may add, as we grow and age, a credit card, driver's license, Medicare card, citizenship certificate, passport, electoral enrolment, property title, Council ratepayer notice, certificates to practise trade or profession, certificate of marriage, will, power of attorney, Seniors Card, Commonwealth Health Card.

About the only one we didn't have in our life-time collection was a death certificate. It will come.

In this complex world personal identity has become thoroughly bureaucratised and cross-referenced. For every component there is an identity number; for most there is also a password. The identity system for each of us is cumulative and comprehensive. It gate-keeps our entire lives and mandates our passage physically, geographically, socially, and in terms of status, rights and responsibilities.

The system may be comprehensive but it is not coherent. A new ID number comes with every card, and each needs a password of varying configuration. For most of us there is no easy way to rationalise this plethora and commit it to memory. We need a record. And records make us vulnerable, however cleverly we disguise them.

We maintained sufficient composure that first afternoon to make three calls: to the police, to the bank and to the insurance company. Beyond that our grasp of the implications of loss of our documentary identity quickly diminished to zero.

It was only after a night of sleepless anxiety that the potential for mischief at our expense started to become clear. In short, from the day of the theft, 'they' had assumed control of our identities; our lives.

It's now a month later and, gradually, we are becoming whole. We have — in fact, we are — a brand new set of numbers and passwords. Our old selves have been bureaucratically buried, as each document is either recovered or replaced.

But there has been one glitch. Just one. The insurance industry does not appear to acknowledge identity theft as an emerging category of crime. Nor does it adequately recognise the implications of identity loss within its reimbursement policies. Our company allows just $1000 for document replacement. So far for us that sum has been fully absorbed by new passports and by the caveat on property title.

Our estimate is that remaining basic legal costs and bureaucratic fees will total a further $1500–$2000. Our policy allows fur coats to be listed as valuable items for additional cover (update needed here for global warming and for 21st century clothing style!), but not personal documents. It allows a maximum of $3000 for any one item of sporting equipment, but only $1000 for all identity papers.

Over the coming weeks insurance companies will be confronted with identical requests to ours from the victims of Victorian fires. Surely for those who have lost everything some urgent policy flexibility must be introduced and reimbursement adjusted to reflect the true cost of document replacement.

Finally, my attention has returned to the window through which our 'person of interest' entered. The best advice for future security came from the very skillful tradesman whose job was to make good damage from break-and-enters. 'Bolt your window through the side rail of the sash,' he said. 'And you'll need locking security doors — if they can't get the window open they'll kick a door in. After that they'll try the roof.' At that point my eyes swam.

But it was good advice; and we've done it. Maybe a very small man can still come down the chimney. And here I'm not referring to Santa ...

Roger TrowbridgeRoger Trowbridge has explored 'the social condition' through positions in community organisations, government departments, and the Social Science Department of RMIT. His writing has been published in Griffith Review, Australian Quarterly, Thirst and New Matilda.

Topic tags: roger trowbridge, identity theft, burglars, credit card, driver's license, Medicare card, passport



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Existing comments

My handbag was stolen from a drawer in my workplace while I was outside organising something with a workmate. Everywhere I tried to start reassembling my identity, I was asked for photo id. Fortunately I had worked for a time at the local Court House and the person working at the counter where I was attempting to get a copy of my birth certificate had worked with me and could identify me. Otherwise I wonder what I would have had to go through to become a person once again.

I suppose the thief enjoyed the slab he managed to get on my credit card before I stopped it.
Margaret McDonald | 18 March 2009


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