Like millions of Americans, I was hammered by Hurricane Sandy. The home that I own on the New Jersey shore was obliterated by the storm. It is nothing but a pile of rubble. Gone. While I have 30 years of memories, there is nothing left but the memories. It is incredibly painful.
I saw it coming and did the best I could to prepare for it, and yet I could never be fully prepared. I said to myself, “It could be really bad, but it can’t really be that bad. It will never happen to me.” Deep down, I didn’t buy it. I didn’t want to believe. After all, we all know that the media can take a snarly spring shower and turn it into the storm of the century.
Unfortunately, this truly was the storm of the century. The devastation it has wrought is unthinkable, heartbreaking, almost vengeful.
When I look at what I’m feeling now and how far it is from what I would have believed a few days ago, I begin to understand how people think — or don’t think — about identity theft.
It seems that human beings are hard-wired to manage risk badly. If you wanted to sugar-coat it, you could call it a survival skill: without this prodigious talent for self-deception — without this brilliant ability to delude ourselves about danger, reject reality, and embrace denial — we never would have become the inventive, self-sure species we are. We would be meditative, bovine and slow — safe to the point of extinction. Not the evolutionary hockey stick humanity has become.
But the irresistible impulse that propelled us to exceptionalism in one sense can doom us to disaster in another — and so it is with identity theft.
Like it or not, believe it or not, we know when we look at the numbers that at some point in each of our lives, we and the members of our families are likely to become victims of this crime. It might be a credit or debit card compromise. It might be something much bigger: a full-on assumption of our identities or those of our children, complete with parallel careers, home purchases, medical histories, even criminal records — all just waiting to come crashing down on us out of the sky like a wind-whipped torrent.
You might think you’re doing everything right, doing everything you could possibly do to avoid it — and that may well be true. But when that showdown comes despite your best efforts and your deepest beliefs, you will realize that this crime doesn’t follow those rules. You can strip the contents of your wallet down to the barest minimum to reduce your risk, eschewing excess credit and debit cards and exiling your Social Security card forever. You can be as self-protective as Garbo in your online behavior, dream up passwords tougher than an armored car, treat your laptop and mobile phone like potential double agents, and shred sensitive documents like there’s no tomorrow. You should do all these things, and more.
But you should also know that it may not be enough. In fact, it probably won’t be.
The truth is that you can make things better, but life cannot be perfected. You cannot reduce your risk to zero. It’s still worth trying, of course, just as it’s worth looking both ways before you cross the street. But no matter how scrupulously you design your life, you need a Plan B in your back pocket. The alternative is to feel the way I feel right now: devastated and undone. You may get hit, but you don’t have to feel betrayed. Anticipating the punch makes it a whole lot easier to get up again.