It’s a good thing we live in a place with an abundance of sunshine, because it’s reassuring to see my shadow following me about everywhere. These days, I’m watching it for signs of fading, not just when the sun goes in, but because there are an increasing number of people out there who seem to think I’ve ceased to exist. They believe I’m impersonating myself. If you meet me on the street, don’t ever say anything like “You look a mere shadow of your former self.” I need to be reassured that I am my former self. So much doubt is cast on one’s identity these days that one begins to wonder. Who is to blame for this personal crisis? It is the too-clever-by-half hackers and digital criminals who make use of their undoubted talents and high-tech equipment, the way old-style burglars used their crowbars and glass cutters, to thieve from those who work hard for their daily bread.

There was a time when the bank manager had some status in a local community and he, along with the local clergyman, might have been the person you wanted to sign off on your passport or job application. Nowadays, in Britain, you can’t find one. The banks have drawn in their far-flung skirts and shut all the little local branches to cut costs. The managers of the remaining larger city branches are now unapproachable by the ordinary mortal in their exalted ivory towers. They are guarded by legions of minions so burdened by procedures and constrained in their discretion as to be frequently useless to consult. Anything that can’t be read off a monitor screen is unconscionable. Nowadays, the British bank manager is such a rare bird that I haven’t spotted one for years. Things haven’t reached that sorry stage in the U.S. yet, but they likely will. The banks are under attack, so they have drawn up their defenses so tightly that it’s even hard for innocents like you and me to get at any hard-earned cash we happen to keep there. Bank robbers like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid are out of a job these days unless they have a master’s degree in IT.

“ …I had been unable to answer a security question! Ring the alarm bells!”

Credit card fraud is the name of the game. We, as consumers, are quite well protected by federal law and card network policies. Financial institutions, however, carry the can for most of the money lost, hence the minefields you have to negotiate to get to your own money. It will likely be tank traps and trenches next. If you look at the statistics, you can see why: credit card fraud amounted to $219 million in 2022, up 21 percent from 2021. It has soared continuously from less than $50m in 2015. Oddly enough, Delaware and Utah are the worst affected states. The places to live, where the incidence of fraud is least, are the Dakotas, but you might be able to think of other reasons for not moving there.

Procedural ossification is not confined to banks. The other day, I was in touch with an international insurance company, whose name is a household word, about a couple of policies I have with them. I was innocently updating some details, like user name, password, and PIN—you know, all those things you can never remember—when I was pounced on by an Asian lady. She asked me to answer some security questions. I was successful at the first hurdles, but then she asked me when I had set up the policies, something I have long forgotten because I’ve had the policies forever, which, given my age, means a heck of a long time. Certainly long before the lady I was speaking to was born. She didn’t seem to appreciate that answer when I used it. I think she must have inherited her sense of humor from a U.S. border guard, as I sensed a sharp intake of breath and a certain stiffening in manner. This is a company that sends me a notification of the policy status each year, often demanding documentary confirmation of my details by return, but despite that, they were suddenly suspicious of my actual existence—I had been unable to answer a security question! Ring the alarm bells! Next, she asked—possibly trying to be helpful, I acknowledge—in what year the policy was set up, as if I didn’t understand the word “when.” This seemed redundant to me, given that previous question, and the call didn’t last much longer. Suffice it to say that I never did get to change my forgotten PIN and now I don’t know where that leaves me—quite possibly with an Interpol red file. These days, all they had to do was Google me. Perhaps I should have very helpfully suggested that.

Nowadays, given the scale of fraud, banks and merchants of all kinds are rightly wary of any consumer making an internet transaction. No longer is it sufficient that you have a good credit score—you have to actually prove you are who you say you are. Enter the “two-factor authentication” test, where the seller sends a code to a second device different from the one you are transacting via. You then enter that back into the first device presumably to prove that you are contactable at the email address on record. The bland assumption that you will have two active devices seems to me to disenfranchise those who can’t fulfill this need. It ignores the fact that there are folk around who don’t have one device, let alone two. Astonishing, I know. It also complicates life for the elderly, for whom technical gymnastics are often incomprehensible, if not actually stressful. The world has moved on, forgetting that there are still many who grew up with snail mail and a sizable black box with a hefty handset (white if you were rich) that was hard-wired into the wall. Amazingly, it was still called a telephone back then. Having that hefty handset would be useful now for beating seven bells out of something to relieve the frustration attending many of today’s financial transactions; hurling a cellphone at the wall gets too expensive.

I suppose we must put all this down to the activities of the bad guys out there. It’s just a different world we must all live in. At least, being able to order up anything from Amazon and having it delivered in two days has its uses. Oh, that’s right, you could get things delivered to your door (as opposed to somewhere at the top of the drive) in the age of snail mail, too—by the Post Office.

© David Cuin 2024