Thursday, May 16, 2013
Good Help is Hard to Find
Maybe it’s because I grew up in the pre-tech era, but I still prefer to pay my bills the old-fashioned way: write a check, stick a stamp on the envelope and drop the whole thing in the mail. I don’t go for electronic payments and bank transfers, unless it’s a publisher transferring royalties into my account. That kind of electronic banking I’m all in favor of. Otherwise, the credit card companies and the utilities can wait until my check gets there, and they can walk their fat-cat butts down to the bank and cash it. Serves ‘em right, the overcharging bastards.
I understand there are programs that will allow these companies to automatically deduct your payments directly from your account. You don’t even have to send a check; on the first of the month, their sticky fingers dive right into your funds and withdraw any monies owed, and all you have to do is give permission. Frell that. I’m willing to pay for checks and stamps if it means I can continue to limit who has access for my money.
No, I’m not being paranoid. They may be faceless corporations—The Credit Card Company, the Electric Company, the Phone Company—but behind the faceless façade are real people doing the actual work, usually for low pay. They’re sitting there with their own bills staring them in one eye and your bank account’s access info staring them in the other. This is how a lot of caper movies start.
Think I’m kidding? Here to fill up my weekly blog requirement is my own personal tale of credit card fraud and identity theft, and it all began with Stephen King.
It was November 2009, right about the time the economy went Titanic and big banks were going belly-up. I was in the K-Mart and spotted Stevie’s latest release. Since I didn’t have sufficient cash on me, I ponied up the MasterCard and went home with reading material. Come mid-December the bill arrived. I wrote the check, dropped it in the mail, and went about my business.
Until I got a phone call from MasterCard’s fraud division. Somebody had gotten hold of my credit card number and was buying stuff online. One store had asked for the PIN number and not gotten it, which is why I was contacted. Of course, it wasn’t me. We immediately cancelled my card and I was issued a new one with a new number. All charges made following my K-Mart book binge were wiped clean and everything got straightened out. Except for the biggie: how had the thief gotten my number?
It wasn’t from the physical card. That was still in my wallet. It wasn’t from digging through my trash; I toss all my bills and receipts in a drawer and clean it out maybe once a year. I hadn’t cleaned it for a couple of months at that point. If the folks at K-Mart had swiped it, why had they waited so long? Most thieves go to work immediately. No one else had access to my card and nobody else had the number, except for MasterCard itself. In those days we were required to write our full account number on our payment checks (that policy has since been changed).
Over the next couple of weeks I did a little detective work. My card is owned by Citicorp/Citibank. It wasn’t originally. I got it back in the ‘80s from a bank that doesn’t exist any more. Every couple of years, due to buyouts and mergers, I get a letter informing me of my account’s new owner and a new address to send payments to. Right now I’m paying Citicorp. Next year it could be someone else. Citicorp is one of those outfits that hit a bad patch when the economy imploded in 2009.
I checked my bank statement. My check was received at Citicorp on December 22. On December 26 I got the call. I did some digging on the Citicorp website. According to a November press release, the beleaguered bank had ordered up a round of layoffs. Usually when a big company decides to cut back, they chop off the bottom rungs of the ladder. You know: the scutworkers stuck with the paperwork. The pieces had now fallen into place.
Here’s what I think happened: Due to economic screwups, Citicorp found itself forced to cut loose masses of its drones. Meanwhile, I discovered Stephen King’s new book at the K-Mart and used my credit card. I paid the bill and wrote my card number on the check, as required. The check arrived at the office, where some innocent little cog in the Billing machine had just gotten pink-slipped right before Christmas. In retaliation, she spent her last day of work writing down the numbers on every check that crossed her desk, for a massive post-Christmas spending spree. One of those checks was mine.
So it’s all Stephen King’s fault. If he hadn’t had a new release the month before, I wouldn’t have felt compelled to buy it, and none of this would have happened.
I can’t prove any of this, but it seems logical. I also find it logical to restrict the number of strangers who have access to my money. This is why I didn’t sign up with PayPal until forced to when I sold a book to a Canadian publisher. Every bank you deal with, every outfit you buy from or sell to, has someone on the payroll who may soon be off the payroll, has your routing number in hand, and sees your balance just sitting there.
I haven’t even covered the damage hackers can do. It’s enough to make you want to burn your computer.
Sadly, the progression is leading toward all-electronic. I still use checks and cash, and will until forced to do otherwise. Now to work on making my signature indecipherable. Let’s see ‘em try to steal that!