The Poet Laureate of Identity Theft

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Rick Moody poses during La Milanesiana festival on July 4, 2012 in Milan.

To literary-minded Americans, he’s a scribe of suburban ennui. To a loose confederacy of Nigerian hackers, he’s a potentially lucrative collection of account numbers and passwords. In both cases, he’s Rick Moody. And after a rough, confusing experience with identity theft, the celebrated author isn’t quite sure who he is anymore.

“We imagine that our own name actually refers to us,” Moody explains. “It’s a very basic feeling about how life works. I know — because I’m not unknown in my profession — that in some ways ‘Rick Moody’ does not always refer to me, but rather to ideas people have about the guy who wrote The Ice Storm. But in this case, my identity theft, that feeling was amplified.”

“I started to feel a bit that my name didn’t refer to me. It had its own life.”

Almost a year ago, Moody slipped down the rabbit hole of identity theft, an account of which was published this month in The Best American Nonrequired Reading 2012, edited by Dave Eggers. Identity theft is a stressful, deeply disconcerting crime to be a victim of, its effects as hard to eradicate as an infestation of termites.

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Financial writers like to focus on the concrete: Why it’s important to be proactive against identity theft, how to avoid it, and what steps to take if it happens to you. We tend to shy away from what it really feels like to have your identity yanked out from under you. There’s no good answer or pat solution for dealing with that stew of emotions, so why dwell on it?

But in Moody’s piece — a sort of essay written in the form of a letter to the identity thieves who victimized him — he delves into the disequilibrium, frustration, and self-blame that many other victims of identity theft surely can identify with. Since an author like Moody should be better than most at putting into words what the experience is like, we asked him tell us more about it, including what went on and what is still going on in his mind concerning the ordeal, which to date is still ongoing. Responding via email, he obliged.

Moody has tried to figure out exactly where and how his identity was breached, but a year’s worth of puzzling and self-recrimination hasn’t gotten him very far. “I have had many moments of the ‘if only’ variety,” he says, but no clear-cut answers as to what he could have or should have done differently. In all likelihood, Moody thinks that he’s narrowed down the origin of the problem to either a lost ATM card that went unnoticed for a while, or to a possibly insecure online purchase.

In the aftermath, Moody closed and reopened multiple bank and credit card accounts that were compromised, along with retail and even email accounts co-opted by hackers. The logistics — which he enumerates in his essay — are dizzying, and the ongoing cleanup has been expensive, in terms of both time and money.

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Although the institutions (Google, American Express, and the like) involved are major players in the creation of our online identities, Moody says he often felt effectively abandoned by them in his efforts to fix the problem. “The little guy must fend for himself,” Moody wrote. “After all the ongoing feelings of violation, and powerlessness I came to feel that the agencies and corporations where the fraud was played out WERE in some ways as shadowy and hard to fathom as the people committing the crime,” he says. The large corporations were, by and large, “unmoved by my plight.”

Being treated like a human, real-life victim rather than just another number was the exception rather than the rule. “I will say that the fraud division at Citibank was remarkably thoughtful and patient with me on a number of occasions, took personal calls, returned personal calls, and expressed much sadness on my behalf — I will never forget this,” he says

Ironically, Moody did get some personal attention from the hackers. He received text messages from one he took to calling “Phil,” although the texter’s poor English led Moody to suspect the messages were coming from the same Nigerian identity thieves who had reached into his computer to pilfer personal information. Moody engaged “Phil” in an email conversation, much to the crook’s apparent confusion, especially when the author started waxing poetic about Dante’s Inferno.

“I told him all about the circle in hell to which Dante consigned the fraudulent. This did not apparently persuade him to abandon his project,” he says, although it did end the conversation — a slim victory, but one Moody savored anyway. “It was fun, but it was Pyrrhic, as victories go.”

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Moody also expresses the suffering of someone who has put himself in a bad situation. “Even as I type these lines I feel that I am protesting too much, and it’s all, in some way, my own fault,” he says.

Why the self-blame? As he acknowledges in his essay/letter, Moody had been an occasional consumer of online pornography and suspects that one such occasion made him vulnerable to the schemers. Of his “inadvisable online transactions” — which he regrets “rather profoundly” — Moody writes:

“Maybe this activity, this pornographic consumption, involves some separation of self (body) from identity in the first place, so that the inevitable decoupling of self from credit card and identity is part and parcel of the process of unselfing, deselfing, that takes place as a result. It’s a symbolic continuation of something that the user has elected to begin himself.”

Victims of all sorts of crimes grapple with unjustified feelings of guilt. And by any account, Moody has paid a high price. “I DID pay, over and over and over and over for what they did,” he told me. “And I still do. In terms of reopening accounts, bounced checks as a result of closing accounts, and definitely in time and labor. Sometimes I put in up to two hours a week on this”

Still unable to put the episode behind him, Moody remains frustrated with what he says is an impersonal infrastructure that doesn’t acknowledge the human toll of identity theft: “Money and power behave, in the end, according to rules of their own devising. They do not have excesses of compassion.”