December 2011

The invisible hand

By David Feela

On my way home from a road trip to California I rented a motel room, which isn’t that unusual. What I didn’t expect is that I’d lose my credit card.

To lose a credit card these days is not that unusual either, but I didn’t know it was missing until I got back home, which leads to the most unusual part of this story, because when I checked for the card upon returning home, it was still in my wallet. Imagine that.

An electronic thief had slipped his or her hand inside my cyberpocket and I didn’t feel a thing.

It’s certainly not news that identity theft happens, but up until last month it hadn’t happened to me. At least I don’t think so. It’s hard to say, like most of my neighbors in the Four Corners, I pretty much take what the cyberwizard sends me, and if the terms for use are layered like fossils into 94 pages of fine print accompanying the transaction, I just accept them.

In the case of the motel, I got lucky, because my credit-card company declined to accept a $50 online transaction with iTunes, citing how uncharacteristic the purchase would have been for my spending profile. The automated message on my home answering machine asked me to call at my earliest convenience. The incident cost me nothing. I was advised to chop up my card; I would be issued a new one. No harm, no foul.

At least that’s the company’s explanation. I can’t believe I got gushy thanking the operator for her company’s attentiveness before I hung up.

But the incident got me thinking about the team of electronic voyeurs somewhere in (New York?) that keeps close tabs on me and my indulgences. It knows when I’m naughty, it knows when I’m nice, it knows how I spend my money, and the locations where I swipe.

George Orwell wrote, “Big Brother is watching you,” and for the longest time I was sure he was referring to some insidious political entity whose face would manifest itself as a monstrous and evil visage.

Now I understand that by choosing the word “Brother” Orwell meant someone who looks after my interests, someone like family, someone who knows how to find the spare key to my backdoor.

I got caught with my cyberpants down. But I don’t use a cell phone. I limit my online credit purchases to dealers where I have a history. I don’t electronically deposit, pay bills online, or use debit or ATM conveniences. I thought my habits had qualified me for a SuperCyberSuit with a red cape. Nothing short of Cryptonite could harm me.

But I was wrong. It’s the people you trust that can make you feel the most vulnerable.

I don’t know if the motel clerk skimmed my credit card, or if the maid who provided room service accessed my laptop while cleaning the room, or even if another guest hacked my computer while I used the motel’s WiFi the night before. All I know for sure is that the transaction occurred at 2:20 p.m. on the 22nd.

The credit-card company could not tell me anything more about the criminal who used my information, but it could have sketched out a detailed analysis of not only where I’d been for the last two weeks, but also a good portion of what I did.

I suppose what bugs me the most is that I’ve grown suspicious about the people who are supposed to protect me, and I don’t even know who they are. By giving the corporation the authority to oversee my finances, I have also handed over my daily agenda. I have handed over my individuality, if you can believe card number 4527 1322 1076 ending in 5149 has something distinctive to say about my character.

It’s probably not smart to put my credit information into a paragraph of newsprint, but I’ve decided for the sake of adventure, to live with a little less predictability.

I know, all a criminal needs to do is lean over a stranger’s shoulder in a coffee shop, or even more devious, just buy a copy of the newspaper. If I’m lucky, more than one opportunist will attempt to use my credit card number, making all sorts of unwarranted and illegal purchases, in places where I never shop. My credit-card company will be forced to update its assumptions about me.

This time it might cost me some money, but finding out what some of my readers have been up to could make it all worthwhile.

David Feela is a retired high-school teacher who writes from Montezuma County, Cortez.