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The real me

When we moved to Austin, I discovered that I was a deadbeat.

It all started when we began our house search. There’s nothing like considering the biggest investment of your life, regardless of how many times you’ve done it before, to make you re-evaluate both your financial and metaphysical worth.

Being a natural worrier, I was already struggling with the could we, should we, dare we buy a home, here, now when we reached the point of filling out a prequalification application with the bank. Boom! That’s when it really hit.

Mom_tattoo_small There it was, in black and white on the form: I had no job and was living in a relative’s spare bedroom. I was ready to head down to the nearest tattoo parlor right then to have the big red “L” emblazoned on my forehead.

Thankfully, I overreacted a bit. We had plenty in savings, no debt and the hubby was gainfully employed. We were able to get the loan, buy the house and settle into our new castle. All’s well that end’s well, right?

I wish. I discovered during the loan process that my fears were true. Officially, I was a ne’er-do-well. My credit report showed a collection agency was after me because I didn’t pay a Verizon phone bill.

One problem. The deadbeat Kay Bell wasn’t me.

I’ve never had a Verizon account and the address on the delinquent charge was in Houston, a place I saw for the very first time just a few months earlier when we drove through it (during rush hour … wait, that’s every hour in Houston) en route from Florida to Austin.

I don’t know who this faux Kay Bell was. I did find it perversely ironic that she was pretending to be me and screwing up my credit from Houston while I, who lived thousands of miles away from the state, was trying to get back home to Texas.

And I have no idea how she got my personal data to open the account. It probably wasn’t too difficult. It’s scary what’s out there about each of us in a multitude of accessible ways. It’s not quite as bad as this pizza order parody, but close.

Sadly, even when you’re careful about protecting your information, it might not be enough. Someone else could expose your life to a thief. Take a marketing move earlier this month by H&R Block. The tax prep company acknowledged that it had mistakenly shipped some free copies of its tax software with the recipients’ Social Security numbers printed on the mailing labels. Heck, even the IRS quit doing that years ago!

I’m just happy that KB2 only used my identity to open one account and only ran up an $80 bill before she skipped. However, it took me seven months to get it removed from my record. Seven months of making phone calls, digging through my records to find acceptable documentation to prove I never lived in Houston, writing and rewriting explanation letters.

Seven months of hassle to prove I was me, not she.

FYI, Texas-based Experian demanded the most authentication before it would remove the erroneous record, TransUnion tended to take my word for it and quickly made the changes and the delinquency actually never was in Equifax’s files. I don’t know how people who find their identities more thoroughly co-opted do it. It’s pure hell for many of them, as detailed in this New York Times (registration required) article.

I was lucky (relatively speaking), but I also was lazy and that’s why it happened to me. I never checked my credit report. Didn’t think I had to. I mean, I followed all the money management rules, paid my bills on time and there was no indication that someone was out there abusing my well-tended credit. Unfortunately, in most cases there is no warning, just a host of problems when you discover your identity has been stolen.

I’ve learned my lesson. I am definitely taking advantage of the law that now lets you get a free copy of your credit report, from all three reporting agencies, each year. One for me. One for the husband. Every single year.

One step forward, two back: The Department of Treasury is jumping on the ID theft prevention bandwagon. Today, Treasury Secretary John Snow will unveil the government’s DVD “Identity Theft: Outsmarting the Crooks.” It features experts talking about the problem and discussing “how a few simple steps can significantly increase protection.”

Interesting thing about this publicity event. Seems any media members wishing to attend today’s official launch at the Treasury Department must, according to the press release, register beforehand and provide name, Social Security number and date of birth.

Those instructions brought this incredulous response from Daniel Ray, Editor in Chief at the personal finance Web site “That's hilarious. One of the best ways to avoid identity theft is to carefully guard your Social Security number, and not give it to anyone who doesn't have a legitimate need for it -- and that usually means only financial institutions. And what does Secretary Snow demand before you can attend his press conference?”

Goose, gander, sauce: Yes, it does indeed seem that this Administration thinks the normal rules, be they for ID protection or valid operational queries, don’t apply to it. This time the White House is refusing to turn over to Congressional investigators some material related to its “heck of a job” handling of Hurricane Katrina.

Let’s see if I got this right. It’s OK for Bush et al to spy on all of us, but we -- the American public, the registered electorate, his ostensible bosses -- can’t get a full picture of how he’s doing his job. Hasn’t he been listening to the propaganda arguments for unchecked spying? Those of us with privacy concerns keep getting told that if we have nothing to hide, we have nothing to worry about.

So what have you go to worry about, Mr. President, regarding Katrina preparation and follow-up?

Addendum: This post was selected for inclusion in the Carnival of Personal Finance #33 and the Festival of Frugality #8.


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