When you’re out for dinner and offer to pay for your guest's meal, the last thing you want are those dreaded words from the server, “I’m sorry, but your credit card has been denied.” I’m not a person who uses a credit card often, mostly for online transactions in order to rack up points that are redeemable for groceries. I have come across people that don’t seem to realize you have to pay back the balance on a credit card, as though it was money given to them out of the goodness of a corporation’s heart, and well, they really needed that hi-definition flat screen television. We had a pleasant meal in a comfortable establishment. The service friendly, the atmosphere intimate. I decided on the credit card and the server returned with a worried look on her face. I imagined she gets all kinds of excuses that make the situation uncomfortable for all. “I just used this card!” or “This is impossible!” or “Check your machine!” All of which aim to remove any sense of responsibility from the customer. The server was prepared and said she tried three different machines and none of them worked. I had enough cash and forgot about the whole thing until the following morning.
I checked my credit card through my online account, and sure enough, there were three charges that weren”t mine: two different cash advance withdrawals at $1000.00 each and $86.43 spent at Home Depot. I have never used the cash advance feature on a credit card and I was not an avid shopper at Home Depot. I recently caulked the base of my toilet, my first official home repair, and although it was not the most aesthetically pleasing job, I was nonetheless proud of my accomplishment. That being said, I could barely hammer a nail in straight and to be honest, I found Home Depot intimidating, a place with that many screws and saws makes me feel wholly incompetent as a man.
So, I was pretty sure these charges were not made by me. I say pretty sure, because how can we ever be completely sure? Someone had a good time on my dime, probably partying it up, paying for $2000.00 worth of alcohol and after the wild night, did some damage that needed fixing, to the tune of, let's say $86.43. The other curious thing was that my billing address had been changed. All in all, this was getting quite disconcerting.
The credit card company was next to no help. They neglected to tell me they put my credit card on hold, waiting for me to be out for dinner and suffer the embarrassment of finding out in the company of a guest. We went through every security question, getting nowhere. They didn’t believe it was me. Finally, the representative asked me where I worked when I applied for the credit card. When I provided the right answer, he sighed with relief and relinquished me from having to pay the $2086.43 (+$5.00 transaction fee for the cash advances). The company would send me a legal document where I promised these weren't my charges. What if I crossed my fingers while signing?
The representative went on to tell me that not only had my credit card number been stolen, but my entire identity was compromised. That’s why the billing address was changed. He explained that they had enough information about me - name, birth date, address, etc - to get into the credit card system and make changes such as the billing address. The representative said they would conduct an investigation and inform me of any progress.
I didn’t feel myself. My self had been compromised. I’ve suffered from a various and ongoing string of existential crises, but had always felt a strange sense of grounding at seeing my name at the bottom of a little plastic credit card. My place in this world might be volatile, but my credit cards always reminded me of who I was. Showed I was alive and important to someone, even though it might be to a corporation called President’s Choice, even though I lived in a country that was not led by a president. The corporations did get my name wrong most of the time: Jeffrey D. Dore, J. Paul Door, Paul Dorito. I forgave them even if they thought I was named after a flavoured tortilla chip, after all, we were in this together. And it didn’t matter, they always corrected it and were always very apologetic about the mistake.
I waited for the results of the investigation, but no details were forthcoming. The president stopped answering my phone calls. After some research of my own, I discovered that the perpetrators most likely got my credit card number and information from an online source. They withdrew $1000.00 on the first day to see if it worked. Tried another $1000.00 and after being successful, went shopping at Home Depot. What didn’t sit well with me was the change in address. I assumed the reason they did this was so statements would not come to my house and perhaps, at least for a while, I wouldn’t be monitoring my credit card usage. Obviously, it was a phony address, but what if...
...what if it wasn’t a phony address?
My online account was still accessible and the changed address still viewable. I jotted it down and looked it up. It was only a two-hour bus ride from Toronto: 37 Roxton Avenue, Cottville, Ontario, J4F 3G9.
The credit card company’s investigation was leading nowhere. It was time I took this situation into my own hands. These people not only stole my credit card, they stole my identity. My soul, my inner self, my mojo, my spirit. It was up to me to get it back.
There was no direct bus to Cottville, I had to take a detour through Perry Sound, so the trip took a bit longer than two hours. I arrived in Cottville after dark, a sleepy town but one that obviously had secrets hiding in the shadows. On the surface, Cottville might not look like much, one main street, the usual small town staples of post office, beer store and Tim Horton’s, but I knew better. As I walked down the main street of this one horse town, an elderly couple stepped out of the only visible restaurant, a diner, and even though they smiled, I regarded them as the criminals they probably were. I imagined bodies in backyards, bank robberies and stacks of stolen credit cards lining their coffers.
I ate at the diner. I didn’t leave a tip. I saw the waitress whispering to the family of four sitting on a booth at the other end of the restaurant. They were all in on it. Besides, the clam chowder was too clammy. Now that’s a real crime.
My cell phone signal was cutting in and out, making my maps and GPS system useless. After some walking around, I found Roxton Avenue and number 37. The lawn was the greenest grass I had ever seen, manicured, almost too perfect. A top the tiny hill sat a modest two-story. White siding, large picture window, a black station wagon in the driveway. Lights were visible through the chiffon curtains, another light emitting from a bedroom window.
I rang the doorbell, figured the best approach was to be direct. A middle-aged man wearing jeans and a t-shirt answered the door with a smile. The smile gave way to confusion as he didn’t recognize me - they didn’t like strangers, these Cottville residents.
“Can I help you?” he asked.
It was at this moment that I froze. Something in me didn’t think I would actually reach this far, and so, I had nothing prepared. I started in, “My name is Paul Dorito [clever - an alias]. This might sound strange, but I am part of a police investigation into credit card fraud. The address that the perpetrators used was 37 Roxton Avenue, Cottville, Ontario. Your house matches the description.” Sure, a few little white lies in there, but how would this small town yokel know any better?
He introduced himself as Dave. Dave, how ordinary and uncriminal-like. He invited me inside, displaying that faux-small town hospitality. I hesitated but felt I could perhaps find some evidence.
The house was well put together. It had a country feel but with a modern twist. Dave guided me to the living room and motioned towards the couch. He offered some coffee, tea or lemonade. I opted for coffee because he would have to make it, which kept him out of the room longer. While he was in the kitchen, I sprang into action, looked under every statue, behind every piece of art, under tables, between the couch cushions. With a couch pillow in hand, I noticed a young boy watching me from the threshold of the room. I fluffed the pillow, pretending I was helping spruce up the decor.
“I see you’ve met my son James,” Dave said, returning to the living room with a tray that included the coffee, a small bowl of fruit and some pieces of chocolate.
I nodded at James. The three of us sat down and Dave queried about what brought me here. I explained the situation behind the credit card and how all evidence pointed to their quaint little house here on the hill. Of course, Dave fully denied any connection to the crimes. The phone rang and Dave got up to answer it in the kitchen, lifting an imaginary coffee cup to his lips, silently asking me if I wanted a refill.
James and I sat in silence. He eyed me. Finally, he looked into the kitchen, made sure his father was still on the phone, turned back to me, leaned in, whispering: “Drop it, leave right now and forget this ever happened. I stole your identity, I have it upstairs as we speak. Know almost everything there is to know about you that can be found online. I know where you live, I know when you were born. Say nothing to Dave, say nothing to the police. If you do, I can make your life a living hell.”
“You’re joking,” I said. “It was you? How do I know you’re not making this up?”
“You didn’t say what was charged,” he said. “Two $1000.00 cash advances and $86.43 at Home Depot.”
Dave came back into the room. Silence returned. I sighed, stood up, said I must be mistaken. As I stepped out into the hostile small town night, I turned around. James stood behind his father, narrowed his eyes and nodded at me.
Back in downtown Cottville, I noticed my cell phone signal kicked in. I called the credit card company and registered with the Canadian Fraud Association, who flagged my name. If anyone tried to use it, I would be contacted to verify. Then I called the Cottville Police Department with the intention of providing the relevant address and putting an end to this young criminal mastermind.
James couldn’t make my life a living hell if I made his a living hell first.
The phone number for the Cottville Police Department was rerouted to an off-hours line.
"Hello," a familiar voice answered. "This is Officer Dave, how can I help you?"
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