The Identity-Theft Paradox

Consumer Reports recently had a foreboding cover story about identity theft – how a thief steals your identity. I read the story over lunch. I thought it won’t happen to me.

Later that day the bank called. There had been suspicious activity on our account (the bank’s words). Someone had tried to withdraw $7,000 for airline tickets or a cruise or some other travel expense. They weren’t successful. Good. And I guess I’m glad the bank has an algorithm that models my spending habits, and flagged the charge as unusual. I guess.

Accompanying the Consumer Reports story was a picture of an oversized fingerprint and a thief sneaking away with a few of the ink friction ridges – the curvy lines that differentiate my fingerprint from yours. He only took part of the fingerprint. That bothered me, and left me with a few questions for the thief.

Why not take it all?

When you posed as me with my credit card (you almost got $7,000), did you really want to be me? Or did you only want to be part of me? Was there part of my identity that was too heavy, too unwieldy, too difficult? Why didn’t you take it all?

You’ve taken pieces of my identity before. These things were part of me, part of who I am, part of my self. You used my phone number to pay your own phone bill. You took a bike off my porch. Yes. That bike was part of my identity. You broke an office window and took my computer. You used my email account to send weight-loss advertisements to all my contacts. Funny. You took my camera and film. My pictures. Not funny. You took lunches from my locker. A watch. A duffle bag. A shovel. Shoes. Fuel. On a couple occasions, you visited the hardware store – as me.

I’m not bitter. I just listed those things to let you know you took the easy stuff, the parts of me that required relatively little work. You didn’t get the valuable things, the meaningful things, the parts of my identity that really define who I am, my core, me. You broke into the Louvre, and you made off with the trash can.

What a pity. You could have run off with Venus de Milo or liberated the Rebellious Slave. Instead, you grabbed the trash can by the door.

I’ll tell you what else you missed while rummaging around in my identity – and I’m not worried you’ll steal these things. They can’t be taken. They have to be created. And that’s why you’ll never have what you really want. As hard as you try, you’ll only ever get the trash can by the door.

Here’s one you missed: a few years ago I took my son and my father hiking into a petrified forest. My son was young. Three or four years old. He walked slowly, and I carried him on my shoulders when he was tired. Around noon, we found refuge in the shade of a piñon tree. We sat on a 200 million-year-old tree trunk eating apples and cheese. The hike back to the car was long, and the sun beat down on us. I loved it. That became a part of my identity.

Here’s another one you missed: when my daughter was nine years old, I told her that when she turned twelve I’d read The Girl of the Sea of Cortez with her. She begged me to read it sooner. She didn’t relent. I read it with her that year. I had other things to do, other projects to finish. I was busy. We sat on the couch or lay on the bed, and I read with her. She would interrupt and ask a lot of questions. She identified with the girl of the Sea of Cortez, and so I paused often and explained the story. That time remains part of my identity.

Are you getting this? Do you see that you can only take the least valuable pieces? The trash can. You risk so much, but you get so little.

When my wife an I hiked fifty miles above 10,000 feet I had a headache from the rarified air. I worried about her feet. We stopped to bandage blisters. The trip was hard. Those five days remain the most memorable and cherished days of my life. They are an integral part of my identity. You can’t take them from me.

Every few weeks, I take my teenage son with me to visit an elderly widow in town. This takes time, and I have so much to do. It’s hard to hold a conversation with her. We have widely disparate interests. She watches television and no longer drives a car. My son and I knew her husband. It’s heart-wrenching to imagine her loneliness. This is part of my identity, and now part of my son’s. You can’t appreciate the worth of these visits. Really, you can’t. What you have taken from me is infinitesimal compared to this time with my son and this widow.

You even left behind the dog poop in the yard. I picked it up every day for eleven years, and in return I kept a loyal companion that ran with me on trails near my home. And speaking of my home, you didn’t take my mortgage.

I understand; parts of my identity don’t appeal to you, because they’re hard, and you’ve only wanted the easy stuff. But what you haven’t learned yet is that the easy stuff will never make you happy. The bike, the camera, the store credit, the computer, the lunches, and all the other things you have taken from me will never make you happy. Those are the easy things. You missed the hard stuff. You shortchanged yourself.

If you’re going to take my identity, take it all. Anything less will leave you empty and dissatisfied. Take it all next time. Take my mortgage and my worries, my concerns for children and neighbors, my boring days, all the leaves in the yard that need to be raked and bagged, the empty gas tank, the phone call from a friend who fell off some scaffolding. Don’t just take the dull facets and the mundane and easy stuff. Take the hard stuff, the whole jewel.

I’m inviting you to take it all. But I know you won’t. These things are too valuable, and so you won’t take them. This is the identity-theft paradox. You’ve walked through a gallery in Florence, and rather than heist the statue of David, you’ve stolen a plastic keychain from the gift store. And it wasn’t even made in Italy.

A few years ago, I was putting a new roof on my house. A neighbor walked by and saw what I was doing. He didn’t ask if he could help. He didn’t say a word. He went home, changed clothes and grabbed his tool belt. He spent the evening and the next day on my roof. That’s his identity. Helping other people comes naturally to him. Doing that sort of thing comes naturally to a lot of people.

You might steal part of their identity: bank accounts, email addresses, passports, credit scores. But those are the least valuable pieces. You can’t take their character, their generosity, their goodness. You’ll only ever get the trash can.


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