David Usborne: Our Man In New York

Identity theft could disembowel me financially

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Going out mid-week is never wise, but ever since my mini-binge with friends newly arrived in town the other day at an East Village joint called Nowhere, I have had this queasy feeling the damage may have gone far beyond the next day's hangover.

The depth of my fecklessness only struck me later when I caught the beginning of a film on television called Firewall with Harrison Ford. My stomach knotted as the tidy life of his character began to unravel when he found he owed $92,000 (£47,000) in gambling debts. He had never placed a bet in his life.

This was Hollywood's take on a new scourge - identity theft, when unsuspecting victims discover too late that crooks, often by means of internet skullduggery, have accessed all their personal records, bank account numbers and so forth, to weave all kinds of unscrupulous scams. Small-fry this isn't. According to the government, the perpetrators of these crimes make off with about $5bn a year.

Sometimes it can be as simple as using your credit card number to buy a Lincoln or Lexus but often the crimes are more elaborate. Last week a man was sentenced in New York to 15 years for stealing the identity of a nun, selling her house and acquiring several other properties in her name for which she was hit with a small fortune in unpaid taxes. Suddenly, the sister was seriously delinquent.

Again last week, several chain stores in Florida acknowledged that the credit card details of 17,000 customers had been hacked. Who knows what it may have done to their credit card balances let alone their credit ratings. In this country, a damaged credit rating can spell catastrophe. All of which has served to make most of us super-vigilant about our financial privacy. And yet we are all capable of letting down our guard and this is how an innocent visit to Nowhere on Tuesday may, I sincerely fear, have turned into the night that I became Mr Nobody.

Four beers down, I was distracted by a man inquiring if any of us would like a free cigarette lighter. All we needed to do was identify our favourite brand of cigarettes. Forgetting I had given up, I snatched the lighter and blurted the name of a large desert mammal with a hump on its back. He typed the name into a hand-held computer and said he needed my telephone number, then my e-mail account and finally he wanted a look at my driving licence? Faster than you can say sucker, he had scanned the thing directly into his little gizmo.

It is possible, I suppose, that he was just a market researcher. The licence, after all, reveals fairly innocuous information - my eye colour and gender as well as my date of birth, which these days I do prefer to keep secret. But it was while watching Mr Ford on television that I started to get the jitters. In my eagerness to acquire a lighter I will never use, had I handed this man my identity on a plate?

As of today, nothing seems amiss with my bank and credit accounts. But paranoia is a friend that takes its leave reluctantly and I can't help feeling that the man in the bar was a foot soldier for an identity theft ring readying to disembowel me financially.

It could get more complicated still. Sometimes an identity is stolen not just for financial gain but so it can be passed to others. The people who do this generally harvest dormant numbers from dead people but not always. Just before Christmas federal immigration agents launched a brutal series of raids, arresting hundreds of illegal immigrants at meat-packing plants in six states. Most of them are now in jail, leaving distraught families unsure of their fates. They are charged not with working in this country without papers but for working with papers bearing social security numbers stolen from cadavers and, possibly, from dupes like me.

My sympathies are firmly with the foreigners trying to forge a decent life for themselves. Who else would do the backbreaking work? Yet I am uncertain about what consequences would follow if there is a strawberry picker in California if not claiming my name, then wearing blue contact lenses and using my social security number.

I guess I will only find out the next time I leave the US and find myself drawn to one side at customs on my return. "Sorry Sir," the agent will say, "but you are no longer David Usborne. You are now nobody."

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