Identity Theft: Crime without Punishment

Caitlin Kelly posted a raw but fascinating essay earlier today, My Con Man Wasn’t Madoff, but Just as Ruthless and Deceptive, that took me back to another cautionary tale worth sharing.

My son, who flies for a major U.S. airline, came home from a trip a few years back, got off the plane and called his then-fiancee (she married him soon, happily for all concerned.) “I’m at the park with a picnic,” she said; “come on out.” It was a beautiful summer afternoon. Changing into casual clothes, he drove straight to the park and found her at the designated spot, where they shared a lovely, leisurely time.

Things were not lovely when he returned to his car. It had been broken into, in broad daylight on a well-traveled street. The thief had made off with his pilot’s uniform and airline ID, his daybook, checkbook, wallet, computer, ID — his life. Plus the financial life of a family he’d been advising with a church group, also on his computer hard drive.

After reporting the crime to the police, my son began the arduous task of rebuilding his life: canceling credit cards, changing passwords, you may know the drill. Within a very short time he discovered that the thief — who had to look somewhat like his white, male, 30-something target since he was using photo ID all over the place — had left a paper trail any incompetent novice detective could follow. Problem is, nobody wanted to bother.

Why? Banks were unconcerned with those few several-hundred-dollar checks; they covered the losses. Retailers said insurance would cover the illicit purchases; they cared not one whit about losses that ran into the thousands. The police had other fish to fry, and explained with a galling indifference that even if they hauled the guy into court he’d probably get off, or quickly out of jail.

The thief eventually quit cashing checks with my son’s name inexpertly forged, and the credit cards soon lost their usefulness — so presumably he went on to another victim. But who picks up the tab for all this? You and I, Mr. and Ms. John Q. Public, thanks to those losses being passed directly along through jacked-up prices and hidden or not-so-hidden fees.

It is hard, when you’re the victim and know you could easily find the victimizer, to accept the fact that justice will not be done. Especially when a huge chunk of your life has gone to replacing and rebuilding that life. But just as Caitlin found with her con man, crimes that loom large to many of us simply go unpunished. So we swallow hard, lock our doors and learn not to leave everything in the car.

We are enjoying seeing Bernie Madoff’s stuff auctioned off while he sits in prison; he’s paying for a few of the fish that were too little to fry. But it doesn’t seem quite enough.

Your Money or Your Life

How old is too old to manage your money? Maybe Brooke Astor’s family could tackle that one.  Or a few of the folks who were living comfortably in posh retirement communities last year and now need charity thanks to investments — that seemed just fine at the time — with Bernie Madoff.

True/Slant contributor Ryan Sager has an interesting new post about “The Age of Financial Reason” that caught my eye thanks to its accompanying geezer-photo. (True disclosure: I am not Ryan’s grandmother — though I certainly could be.) He cites an abstract I find fascinating, although I tend to distrust any proclamation that plays fast and loose with phrases like “suboptimal use of credit card balance transfer offers” or misestimentation of ” home value.  Did these people ever take regular English? Nevertheless, they are seriously into their study, however convoluted their language.  They are concerned about us older adults and our potentially poor financial choices, since it seems “about half the population between ages 80 and 89 either has dementia or a medical diagnosis of ‘cognitive impairment without dementia'”. Good grief.

This is, truth be told, no laughing matter.

You would not want me making your financial choices. Numbers have never been my strong suit. This is despite the fact that I once wrote a pretty good little book titled “Money Management,” part of a 13-volume series designed to reach the functionally illiterate adult population (I was the creative part; co-author LuEllen Ransbottom was the brains.) What I did really smart was to marry Bud Johns; you should be so lucky as to have Bud make your financial choices.

But the point is, few of us can really predict when our sharp brains might slip right into that ‘cognitive impairment without dementia’ gray area. And the further point is, as noted in Ryan’s post, there is a limit to which government should not go in removing one’s control of one’s financial choices — at least, the financial choices we have left over after taxes.

Many of us geezers are less than pleased about the fact that careful choices past — such as optimization of credit cards, i.e. religiously paying balances on time; credit companies hate people like us — carrying only reasonable mortgages or other debt, investing in properly run, socially responsible companies — many who practiced fiscal responsibility (except Bud and I both, separately, did invest in Smith Corona just for old times sake) have found themselves penalized by measures taken to avert disasters brought on by the fiscally irresponsible.

What’s a body to do? I agree that families need to maintain awareness, at whatever age, of the financial choices being made by themselves and their loved ones. If they’ve had long-term investments with good investment companies or advisors, chances are those companies or advisors will not lead them astray. When checking out those links from Ryan’s blog, and a few dozen others on reputable senior and financial sites, I also found a zillion agencies out there eager to help. It is likely that the ones with .org after their names rather than .com might be preferable.

In a recent post I talked about the emergence of brain exercise, and its small promise for postponing ‘cognitive impairment without dementia’ (I’m beginning to detest that phrase.) For example: say six numbers out loud. Now say them backwards. You have exercised your brain. In an effort to forestall poor financial decision making, for the time being I plan to do my brain exercises. And leave the decisions to Bud.

Housing, homelessness & other inequities

Today’s Sonoma County (CA) Press Democrat features a front page story about Joe Montana’s digs near Calistoga, available for $49 er–million. It is right above a photo of homeless vet Jack Saltzman reading in his hatchback, the juxtaposition of photos hard not to notice.

Others vets don’t have hatchbacks. Press Democrat feature writer Jeremy Hay reports that according to the Department of Veterans Affairs, approximately 400, or 12%, of Sonoma’s 35,000 vets are homeless, which fellow homeless vet Don Bridges says is “just the tip of it.” Some 131,000 of the nation’s 24 million veterans are homeless on any given day.

Hay details some of the measures being undertaken to alleviate the problem, including $3.2 billion recently pledged by the V.A. to be spent over the next five years toward getting veterans off the street and keeping them from falling into homelessness. But returning vets have been part of another world most of us only see in the extreme abstract and can’t possibly comprehend; fitting right back into mainstream America can be harder than anywhere they have served, where at least, another vet explains, “you’ve been part of your tribe.” More vets will return, and more will wind up on the streets.

None of this is the Montanas fault.

Another Press Democrat front page story, a New York Times article by Andrew Martin and Lowell Bergman, mentions a 91-year-old Florida woman who got a letter from Citibank last month advising her that her new credit card interest rate was 29.99 percent, up 10 points from the previous rate. Haven’t we been reading about Citibank lately?

These bits of information are being digested by those of us who elected Mr. Obama and now feel sad and frustrated because our expectations were, perhaps, too high. Some of us are wondering why he ever wanted the job in the first place.

We don’t have an answer to homelessness. We may not make an offer on the Montana estate — even though, with a Tuscan-style mansion, equestrian center, full-sized basketball court, gym, pool, etc, etc it is probably worth that matching 49er price — because with 20% down and a 30-year 6% fixed rate mortgage the monthly payments of $235,023 would be a stretch. And we are not planning any credit revolt, despite the fact that it is the responsible credit users who are being penalized by the likes of Citibank. What we are doing is just trying to comprehend the surreal nature of today’s news as covered on one front page.

And keep the faith.