A couple of years ago, Chuck Klosterman wrote an article in the New York Times examining why zombies were so popular these days. There is no denying that the undead have been enjoying their cultural moment for a few years now, and the trend will likely continue with The Walking Dead getting its own spinoff series next year. While I suggest you read the article, I will paraphrase to tell you his theory is that we like our monsters to reflect our collective condition. Remember Godzilla and the atomic age? Klosterman posits that zombies, in fact, are a metaphor for our day-to-day existence. They are fairly easy to kill and they just keep coming. Like email. And all those mind-numbing forms I’ve been filling out this week as the school year starts. Suffice it to say, the essay struck a chord.
When I look at my to-do list each day, it’s hard not to think of it as so many zombies, each needing an axe in the head as I make my way through to the end of the day. Verify the flexible spending bill! Make sure the doctor referral is faxed to the specialist! Pick up the exact right leotard for your daughters first day of dance class! Try to set up an automatic funds transfer at your bank! back up your files! As with the killing of zombies, all of these tasks are fairly easy to dispatch, yet the consequences of not doing so can be dire. And here’s the rub: it pretty much never ends. The doing of tasks only begets more tasks. I’ve never understood exactly why, but there it is. Now, why would I take on this topic in a blog ostensibly devoted to the celebration of the domestic arts? Because let’s face it, this daily zombie killing can really get in the way of making your own yogurt.
Most of the time, one is dealing with your garden-variety zombies: the email kind, the paperwork you have to fill out, fax and return. Your taxes. Every day there are a few here and there. But do you know what a real full-blown zombie apocalypse feels like? I do. It’s what happens when your bank account gets hacked and your identity is stolen.
Let me set the scene: It was early August and I was still on vacation in Minnesota, getting my children acclimated to the day camp they would be attending while staying with my parents for the next two weeks. In a few days, I would be heading back to New York for the first extended kid-free time with my husband in a decade. Our goal was to remember how fun it was to live in New York in our twenties, and to say that I was looking forward to this was the understatement of the year. Sure, we would have some work to do, but generally we were expecting to enjoy a few carefree weeks where we could make spontaneous plans and stay out late.
The zombie incursion began quietly enough. I tried to make a call to my husband at home and a strange man answered, mumbling like I had woken him up. I apologized for the apparent mis-dial and called home a second time. Got the mumbler again. Weird. About 20 minutes later, I took a look at my email to find about a dozen messages from PayPal. The first: you have changed your password, next: you have changed your email address, and then: thank you for your purchase!. Shit. I tried to log onto my bank account but couldn’t get in.
To their credit, most companies are used to these digital assaults because they happen all the time, and they have a protocol in place to deal with them. I called PayPal and they were immediately on the case. The charges were for a few video games and pre-paid cell phone “loads” in the Philippines. Next, my husband called the phone company and got this tidbit of information: apparently earlier that evening a man “with an accent” (making this all the more mysterious and noir) called the phone company and told them a dog had chewed through the cables and convinced them to add call forwarding to our phone which sent all our calls, presumably, to the mumbler, who might have been asleep in the Philippines. WTF? The next call was to the bank who also said a man with an accent had tried unsuccessfully to log in to our accounts several times, but when he tried to call and impersonate my husband to change the password over the phone, he failed the security questions. Ha! Practically no one knows the name of my first cat.
In a way, this is proof that the system works. About 12 years ago, we had something similar happen (we’re lucky that way). After applying for a mortgage, we were contacted by the fraud department at Dell Computer saying that someone had purchased a large amount of computer equipment using our information. When we went to the police to file a report, the conversation went something like this
Me: “I’m here to file a theft report”
Police: “okay. what has been stolen”
Me: “thieves have used my identity to purchase computer equipment”
Police “sorry, can’t help you, nothing has yet been stolen”
Me: “what about my identity? That has clearly been stolen”
Police: ” your identity is not a thing”
We went round and round and finally I left without out filing. Today, our precinct has one detective dedicated solely to internet fraud. Everyone knows the drill. You call the bank or credit card company or PayPal and they start reversing the charges. You get your money back (eventually). You call the credit agencies and they freeze that shit up. You start boarding up the windows and locking the doors and trying to plug up any security leaks and the real zombie onslaught begins with the gazillion tasks it takes to sort it all out. We had to close our bank accounts and open new ones, change our direct deposits and all of the auto debits associated with the super-efficient internet banking set up I had put in place. Within days, AT&T, RCN, and the insurance company were sending me notices that their auto-debits had all been denied. Each of these incidents meant chunks of time on the phone, on hold, explaining the situation. Along with the getting new credit cards and setting up all our new accounts, we needed to change all our passwords. I’ll admit, I hadn’t done this in awhile. But the thief had clearly had at least one to get into PayPal and probably had more. So much for a carefree August!
It took us over a month to get through the lists of tasks that we needed to do to start over. It’s enough to make you want to go off-grid, and back to the barter system. In the midst of all of this, we happened to get together with an old friend who has made his career in Internet policy at the Department of Commerce, just the sort of cyber-security expert whose advice you would want to take when dealing with a mess like this. Despite revealing all of the stupid things we did in advance of this situation, I share my new-found wisdom with you in hopes that it will help you avoid our same fate:
Sorting all of this out really cut into the awesome time we were supposed to be having on our three weeks in the city alone with no children. At one point, we had no access to any of our actual money, but took our one working credit card and went out to dinner anyway. We felt like survivors. I suppose I should say I feel better knowing that we have secured our accounts, changed our passwords and can actually figure out what they are most of the time, but I don’t. I just feel beleaguered by our modern existence. And part of me is still waiting for someone to start buying property in Florida in my name. Which is why, at the end of the day, I like to relax by settling in for a little Walking Dead. In a real zombie apocalypse, I guess we wouldn’t have to worry about online banking security or fill out endless forms. Just looking on the bright side.