Many years ago, I accidentally discovered that some nere-do-well had attempted to steal my identity. Not surprising, when you consider that we increasingly live in a world where our Social Security Number and other vital, personal statistics are roaming wild and free across millions of computer systems throughout the world. Just take one look at the mammoth data breaches of the past few years, where this retailer and that ruefully announces the loss of vital, client data. It’s enough to make your skin crawl.
Upon learning that somebody else’s name was affixed to my credit report, I took appropriate action. In addition to alerting every credit agency to the crime, I also immediately implemented a credit freeze, blocking all non-approved access to my credit report. This was long before Todd Davis proudly put his own Social Security Number on the sides of billboards and trucks, all to promote his LifeLock security service.
(By the way, Mr. Davis himself is up to about 17 different thefts of his identity in the years since launching his company.)
There is a problem with a “credit freeze,” though. Once applied, it can take an act of Congress to get it lifted. If you don’t happen to carry your credit freeze pin code and personal identification numbers around with you at all times – one for each of the major three credit bureaus – you might just find yourself hitting a brick wall when you try to do something as innocuous as signing up for cell phone service. The retailer will contact the credit bureau to look up your status only to find what should be a quick, painless process grind to a screeching halt.
Such was the case yesterday, when our family attempted to fire up new lines of service at Verizon Wireless. I blissfully forgot that I had credit freezes in place and received the jolting news mid-way through the account creation process.
What ensued in the half hour after that revelation is a cautionary tale that you would do well to keep in mind for yourself.
The clerk at the Verizon Wireless store said, “Mr. Pearl, do you have a credit freeze on your account?”
Suddenly I remembered that, yes, I had locked down my credit tighter than a shipment of nuclear waste. No worry. TransUnion was on the line and by simply answering a series of questions about items contained within my credit report I’d be off to the races.
If only it were that simple.
On the other end of the line was a gentleman with a thick – almost completely unintelligible – accent. Though his English was solid, his pronunciation of various words left me grasping at straws. If only it were as simple as verifying my social security number, name, and address life would be just fine. Unfortunately, TransUnion required me to answer a series of complicated, multiple choice questions designed to weed out whether I was in fact that person I claimed I was.
The first question had to do with our home address.
Somewhere along the line someone had added an apartment number to our address. Though we lived in an apartment about about 20 years ago, every address since has been standard fare. Street number, street name, town, and zip.
I have no idea what address they were looking at, but simply providing our current address was – as my son would say – an epic fail.
The second question had to do with mortgage payments. This is where things start to get dicey. Simply speaking an address to the man on the other end of the line was a study in frustration, to be true. But it was a study in frustration because the data was wrong, not because I couldn’t understand him.
The mortgage question, though, was one of those multiple choice affairs that involved him reading a series of mortgage companies and me confirming the name of the one to whom we paid our bills every month.
In addition to me not understanding a word he was saying, the name of the mortgage company had been shortened to a bunch of initials, none of which made any sense to me. ”Are you saying, ‘C’ or ‘B’ or ‘V?” I simply couldn’t understand anything through that thick accent. I finally punted.
“All I can tell you is that we don’t write checks to any of those companies you just named, but if I have to pick one, I’ll take door number 3.”
(Funny thing… They can’t tell you if you get the answer wrong until they’ve tortured you with the entire slate of questions.”
Before I totally threw in the towel I took a stab at a third question.
It was on this third question that I nearly broke down and wept right there at the counter in the Verizon store.
“On or about April 2009 you took out a consumer loan with which of the following four companies…”
Friends, I still have no idea what he said to me. The four multiple choice options he read bore absolutely no relationship to any English words I’d ever heard. I knew the loan he was talking about. It was the only loan we had taken out in April 2009. I knew it was with one of two credit unions, so I offered the first one that came to my mind.
“I’m sorry Mr. Pearl…”
I understood the, “I’m sorry…” part clearly. Perhaps because he’d had so much practice using that phrase, or perhaps because my ears had finally tuned into his accent, but either way I got the message.
Epic fail. Again.
As he was reading his scripted litany of disclosures and “…You may call TransUnion at…” I stopped him.
“Excuse me… I don’t want you to take this the wrong way, because this is nothing against you personally, but I need to get this on the record. Your accent is so thick I had no idea what you were saying half the time and it made this entire experience excruciating. I could have given you completely wrong answers not because I didn’t know my own credit report but because I couldn’t understand a word you were saying.”
He kept on going without missing a beat. ”…and if you’ll call back once you have your pin code in hand…”
Here’s the tragedy. That guy might just have his PhD from his native country. He sounded articulate and intelligent from what little I could make out. Every time I turn around I see another immigrant from some other country bringing way too much talent working in way too menial a position for their talent.
I just couldn’t understand the words coming out of his mouth.
Like it or not, there are some jobs in some English-speaking countries which are best left to native English speakers. A telephone support person tasked with handling detailed personal information such as the kind found in a credit bureau report would be such a job.
At the end of the ordeal I was flushed, frustrated, mortified, and embarrassed. My wife said I made something of a spectacle of myself. I talked too loudly. Call it a knee-jerk response. When we don’t think people can understand us we instinctively fall into the mode of, “Maybe if I say it louder they’ll hear me better.” It took me a full 15 minutes to finally feel my blood pressure subside.
We live in a melting pot. I’m proud of that fact.
We live in a society where we genuinely believe that any person should be able to achieve the pinnacle of their capabilities as long as they work hard enough at their goal. I’m proud of that, as well.
And the sad truth is that language is still a barrier in some circles and some jobs. The man I spoke with probably makes short work of handling someone who speaks Spanish as their first language. English, however, proved a nightmarish trip to abject frustration. That’s not a slam on the man with whom I spoke. That’s a slam on TransUnion for putting him in the position to fail in the first place.
I think we’re a richer country for having immigrants in our midst. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. My father is a first-generation American, the son of immigrant, Austrian parents.
At the same time we can’t ignore the fact that language is a barrier to some jobs. If you’re going to have someone working the phones, make sure they are equipped with the tools it will take to succeed. What I experienced yesterday should not happen again.