Last weekend, I got bored and finally purchased a PS3. While this is very exciting news for me, it’s not the important part of today’s story. It’s not even the thing that gets us to the important part of the story. It’s the thing that gets us to the thing that gets us to the thing that gets us to the important part of the story. I’m also fully aware that this could be the most annoying and wasteful opening paragraph I’ve ever written, so I apologize.
We paid $200 cash for the PS3, and bought it from a poor college kid in downtown Madison. The system was easily the most expensive thing he had in his apartment, unless his Bob Marley posters somehow turned out to be antiques. The PS3 was brand new, the kid got his much-needed rent money, and we saved ourselves over $100. I must say, apart from all the weirdos and occasional rape, Craigslist sometimes comes through in a positive way, yet I was still plenty nervous beforehand. Prior to the transaction, I recall standing in the lobby of his apartment building, apprehensively interrogating the Missus as to who exactly we were dealing with.
“Did he sound like a serial killer on the phone?”
“What does ‘not really’ mean?”
“Well, he said we could ‘zip on by anytime,’ and I don’t think a serial killer would say something like that.”
“That’s your criteria? Serial killers don’t use colloquialisms?”
She nodded confidently.
It turned out she was right, but I generally wouldn’t use her criteria as a litmus test when it comes to determining if someone likes to make furniture out of pale, German skin.
As we drove home, I mentioned to the Missus that we now needed to buy approximately ten billion dollars worth of games and accessories not included with the initial system in order for us to, you know, actually use the PS3 in a meaningful way. She suggested we go to Best Buy. I suggested we try out Pawn America, the new place in East Madison currently residing in an abandoned Circuit City. I had never been to a pawn shop before; maybe we could get some good deals on used games. Furthermore, I was in a really good mood, and needed to balance things out by spending an hour inside of what could literally be the saddest place on Earth.
Pawn America didn’t have what I needed, but it had a shitload of stuff I didn’t even know I wanted. Where else could you buy a leaf blower, paintball gun and a spool of lamp cord all at the same time? I soon realized that pawn shops were where dreams, projects and aspirations went to die. As I scanned over all of the musical instruments and exercise equipment, I could almost hear the voice of the person who initially bought them, brimming with good intentions and optimistic hope for the future. “You know, it’s high time I learn the trombone and start working on my abs.” Three months later, the Bowflex is being used as a coat rack, the trombone has spider eggs in it and the gas bill is past due. Sacrifices need to be made.
We didn’t buy anything even remotely associated with the PS3, but we lugged quite a haul of unnecessary items to the register for purchase. As I handed my debit card over to the cashier, I heard the one thing you never want to hear in a retail establishment (second only to ‘this is a robbery,’ I suppose):
“Sir, your card has been declined.”
There’s a certain kind of embarrassment when your card isn’t accepted. It’s a pride issue more than anything, because it generally means that you’re not only broke, but so broke that you’ve been figuratively cut off by the financial institution of your choosing. Add that to the fact that my debit card was declined inside of a pawn shop, and you can begin to understand the shame and anxiety I was feeling for allowing myself to stoop so low. I might as well have been carrying a stick with a hobo bag tied to the end.
Never mind that I wasn’t really broke. Never mind that there had to be some sort of computer error. Never mind that I pay all my bills and have literally dozens of dollars in the bank at any given time (I shouted all of these things at the cashier, who wasn’t having any of it). What concerned me most was what mysterious snafu caused my account to be shut down. I paid with a credit card and beelined back to the house.
When we got home, I started hooking up the PS3 while the Missus scurried upstairs to access our checking account. Minutes later, she ran down the steps in a huff, raking through her purse in a desperate search for…something (I was too scared to ask). Once again she ran back up to the office, only to slowly return minutes later, dejected and calmly enunciating the words she was trying to convey to me.
“…Okay. So, I…think…I know why our card was…um, well…declined.”
“Oh, yeah? What happened?”
“Well, it…appears…that, well…our number may have been…just a wee bit…um, stolen.”
“Stolen? How did that happen?”
“STOP BLAMING ME!”
Sure enough, earlier in the day, some random cyberthief managed to get their hands on our debit card number, using it to snag somewhere in the neighborhood of $700 worth of plane tickets from a travel site located in Spain. Our credit union must have realized something was up and froze our account, which led to the embarrassing situation earlier that day in Pawn America.
“So…what do we do now?” I asked the Missus. “Will we get our money back?”
“IT WASN’T MY FAULT!” She yelled.
I honestly, and I mean honestly, don’t know why anyone would want to steal my identity. I’ve got a decent amount of debt, no major assets to speak of (my home is approximately 2% paid for) and my credit rating is somewhere in the high two-digit range. I understand that this was a random situation that randomly struck oil for the thief at fault, but I kept thinking that it somehow had to do with a reckless online purchase of some sort. After all, the Missus had been buying an awful lot of vegetarian cookbooks from eBay recently, and I’m addicted to that website where those giant women squish insects while barefoot, but I thought we had been careful enough to avoid getting burned. At no point, however, did I blame the most obvious and (usually) guilty party: My Bank.
Ironically, you used to put your money in the bank because that was the safest place for it. In reality, had I kept that $700 in my wallet instead of my checking account, I would have never lost it to begin with. Thanks to shoddy online security and the ease by which cyberthieves operate, a large chunk of my identity (the Net Worth portion, specifically) had been compromised to the tune of Spanish plane tickets and Pawn America infamy (I can never go back, even for lamp cord). After a few phone calls, everything was fixed and back to normal, but it shed light on a bigger problem for me, specifically the culture of online anonymity and how it affects the security we have over our money.
At best, my credit union had to eat that $700. There was no way they were getting it back, no way they were catching the thieves, and no way they were going to get it from me. Now, this must happen thousands of times a day at thousands of different banks to the tune of thousands of dollars each. Not that I have any remorse or empathy for the Banking industry, but they must lose billions of dollars annually in identity theft alone. I haven’t done a lot of research into this (‘none,’ to be exact), but I must assume that we (meaning you and me) end up paying for this somehow. But what are we going to do? Pay cash for everything? Withdraw every liquid asset we have and keep it in a shoebox? I feel like I’m having a moment of clarity that everyone else had four years ago (thanks for bearing with me), but our system seems…slightly flawed.
Yeah? Well no shit, Zeinert.
Here’s the thing that pissed me off the most, which goes back to what I was saying about online anonymity. The embarrassment, the fear, the legwork and the freeze on our account was no big deal in the long run. What sucks is that the thief got off scot-free. I wasn’t robbed on the street with a weapon. I was keystroke-jacked by a douchebag at an online café in a country I’ll never visit. My thirst for revenge overshadows the severity of the crime itself; I would have gladly given up the $700 for the opportunity to find out the name of the person responsible. Just like Vincent Vega says in Pulp Fiction after discovering that his 1972 Chevy Malibu was keyed, “It would have been worth it if I could have caught him doing it.”
I guess this happens to everyone eventually (it’s probably happened to most of you by now), and I’m over it, it’s just a deflating experience. What’s more, my credit union took the time to send me a letter basically saying that they were going to spend the next month making sure I wasn’t lying to them, a prick move that made me want to switch banks out of spite. That’s exactly right, bank, whenever my wife and I book vacations, we always make sure to plan our itinerary through CalienteWire.com, you stupid bastards.
So, what have we learned? Don’t make transactions with strangers on Craigslist? No, that actually worked out quite well. Don’t buy things from a pawn shop? No, that was also an interesting (and rewarding) experience. Don’t make Debit card purchases online? Still no, I’ve never had bad luck with that in well over a decade.
What we learned is that, despite all of your responsibility, street-smarts and fiscal conservatism (or complete disregard thereof), there’s always going to be some butthole in the Iberian Peninsula that causes you great discomfort, embarrassment and fear through no fault of your own. And you’re going to clean up their mess with no retribution or apology from anyone, because this is the risk you must take (and the fee you must pay) to live in an evolved, streamlined culture.
And I’m perfectly fine with that. Sort of.