The unrelenting stream of offers by mail to refinance our mortgage is frankly unnerving, in that they spell out to the penny what we currently owe on our house. But I admit that my usual response is to try not to think about just how much complete strangers know about me. That's because they are frequently so laughably wrong.
The mail order marketers, for example, have typecast me as an earthy-crunchy, Birkenstock-wearing hippie-chick who practices yoga and hangs spirit catchers in my windows. My husband, if you believe the marketers, is a proud, card-carrying member of the NRA, who indulges in expensive French wines and Cuban cigars and is either paranoid about his personal safety or likes to spy on other people. None of this is remotely true, except I suppose having recently purchased a 20-bottle wine rack from Williams Sonoma qualifies him as a wine connoisseur.
I don't have to tell you about the Internet marketers. According to them, I am an overweight, middle-aged male with some serious medical dysfunctions who dropped out of high school and is either interested in enrolling in a mail-order degree program or making money by stuffing envelopes at home.
All too funny. That is, until I read "No Place to Hide," by Washington Post reporter Robert O'Harrow. You want a good scare? Read it yourself. I guarantee it will keep you up at night.
That's because in the book, O'Harrow describes just how big the business of data collection is in this country. He describes how companies are making enormous amounts of money by culling over our credit card purchases and bank records, keeping track of our every movement and gleaning information from all sorts of public and private records to build personal dossiers about each and every one of us. Most distressing, he describes how insecure this information is and how easy it is today to actually lose control of your identity.
Just the other day we had a real-life scare, when a box of bank checks showed up in the mail. We had not placed an order for any checks, and the numbers on the new checks overlapped with numbers on a box of unused checks.
My husband immediately called our bank's customer service line. A friendly representative confirmed that we had placed the order two weeks ago. But wait, the story gets more disturbing. When my husband denied placing the order, the bank rep could not offer up any explanation. A chat with his manager only garnered this explanation: "We cannot explain how such a mistake could occur in our system." They did, however, offer to waive the charge for the new checks.
The book really hit home at that point. How secure is anyone's data really, when a bank you've done business with for 20 years can't explain a charge on your account? My only criticism is that O'Harrow doesn't offer up any suggestions on how to protect yourself —short of closing all your bank accounts, cancelling all your credit cards and pretty much dropping out of mainstream society altogether. And that's precisely what makes the book so depressing and chilling.
I tell you what we're going to do though. Oh sure, I know it's just a feel-good response, but I am going to go out and buy the biggest paper shredder I can find. I hear they have a new high-speed model called the Enron.