Friday, December 04, 2009

Telling details in letter to impoverished victims of identity theft

Picture what would happen if 1,400 middle-class British Columbians suddenly discovered that a provincial government employee with a criminal record for fraud had all their personal information stashed at his home.
We’re talking all the good stuff: social insurance numbers; birth dates; phone numbers and addresses; personal account numbers. Worse still, he’d had it for seven months by the time anyone who’d been affected even knew it had happened.
The halls of the legislature would be ringing for weeks with the howls of outrage and indignation. The government would be turning itself inside out to make things right for the victims.
Unfortunately, the actual story involves 1,400 welfare recipients. And the way the tale has played out in real life is so strikingly different than how things would have gone had the crime involved British Columbians with political clout, that there’s no hiding the government’s disregard for people on income assistance.
There’s a small but telling detail in the greeting line of the letter that government sent to those 1,400 people last month to inform them of the privacy breach.
How might you expect to be greeted by your government in a letter like that? “Dear Ms. Paterson”? Maybe “Dear Jody Paterson” if honorifics were too much hassle?
Nope. The actual letters opened thus: “Dear PATERSON, JODY LEE.” The impoverished recipients were then informed that they would need phone access, computers and ID to sort out their problems, and given a few Web sites and toll-free numbers to get them started.
It speaks volumes that the government couldn’t even bother to cut and paste a respectful greeting line into 1,400 letters to people being told they’d been screwed over.
The tone isn’t helped by the little note at the top of each letter telling recipients they may have accidentally received somebody else’s letter in the mail earlier due to a “clerical error.” Their privacy was breached twice, in other words: once by the theft of the information, and a second time when a botched mailing resulted in letters with people’s names and income-assistance file numbers being sent to someone other than them.
The letter - from the Ministry of Housing and Social Development - makes it clear that people are on their own to sort out problems arising from the theft. “Take the necessary precautions to protect yourself,” the letter urges before briskly listing the many things that will need attending to if people hope to make that happen. Good luck, little camper.
The recipients also found out in the letter that their health records have been flagged due to the breach, so they’ll have to show ID the next time they need medical care. A utility bill with people’s name and address on it will suffice, the ministry said this week, but added that it’s ultimately up to health-care providers to decide if that’s sufficient proof.
Is the ministry so out of touch with the circumstances of the people who walk through its doors every day that it doesn’t know that phones and computers are rare commodities for people scraping by on income assistance? Or that many of them will have no ID whatsoever? (One bit of good news: The ministry will waive the once-a-year-only proviso for replacing lost or stolen ID for these 1,400 people.)
Does the government get that some of the victims will have developmental disabilities, literacy issues or mental conditions that will make it impossible for them to understand those letters? Or that people move around a lot when they live in abject poverty and may not have even received their letters, let alone have a bill with a current address?
The privacy breach won’t go unexamined, mind you. The government has launched no less than four reviews into how this could have happened, including one by B.C. Privacy Commissioner David Loukidelis. One day soon at what will doubtlessly be great expense, we will know much more about how the breach came about.
But come on, guys, free up a few thousand bucks for some community organization to help the 1,400 victims sort their stuff out - the people who are the actual victims of this crime. “I think a lot of this does fall to government to take on,” notes Loukidelis.
People have been frightened by the letter, says Katie Tanigawa of the Together Against Poverty Society, an advocacy organization that has fielded a number of calls from worried recipients.
“All the ministry has given people are phone numbers and Web sites to contact,” says Tanigawa. “But at the end of the day, it’s inaccessible information. And it makes life just that much more difficult for people who are already living in very stressful situations.”

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