Crime du Jour: 31 Days of Malfeasance, Misconduct, and Immorality
One crime story per day, all the way through October. Ebook to be published Nov 1. This will be under my mystery/crime pen name, Diane R. Thompson!
Crime du Jour #16: Identity Theft
THE CLOISONNÉ HEART
The question of who my mother was only arose after her death. I had put some of her ashes inside a jewel-like, enameled cloisonné heart specially made to hold them. On the back of the heart was a threaded screw—a big plug, really. You put the ashes in, then screwed the plug shut. There was no way to unscrew the plug, no screwdriver slot or edges to grip on, once you had tightened it. Once it was in, it wasn’t coming out. The heart came with a little stand, so you could display it.
The rest of her ashes I scattered around the farm, trespassing because the property had long since been sold.
Our family’s savings and property were stolen by a con man in the late 1980s, when I was in ninth grade. At first no one could believe it. We limped along, trying to pay bills, until finally the bank lay down the law. Then we moved to Cheyenne, where my father got a job with a government bureau helping other farmers navigate their own bankruptcies.
I’ve looked over the paperwork. The con was a fairly common investment scam that involved going in on shares on guaranteed high-yield property around the East Teapot Dome Oil Field.
It was a deal too good to be true.
Mom worked tirelessly to hold the family together, working two jobs and cooking a dozen meals at a time to put in the freezer, for nights when she wouldn’t be home until late. She volunteered at our new church, not because she had the time, but because she felt obliged to repay the community for helping us out when we moved.
As the sale of the farm went through and the debts were paid off and the police had tracked down the man who had fooled Dad so badly, although we were given to understand that we’d never get the money back—that is, as things started to look up—Mom seemed to shrink in upon herself. She lost her temper over the smallest issues. She quit volunteering for the church. She put on weight. More than once, she wasn’t where she said she was. None of us had cell phones back then. She would blame me for the times when no one could find her: she had told me what my curfew was, and I was lying about her behavior in order to shift the blame.
I convinced myself that she was right, and that I should be ashamed of myself.
Then we were hit by identity thieves.
This was the early 1990s by then. A dozen credit cards were opened in my name, in Mom’s name, in Dad’s name. The savings that I had worked summers and after school to pay for college disappeared. All our savings did. Every vehicle we owned had liens taken out against them. A second mortgage had been dumped on the house. The thief had done everything they could to clean us out.
Once again, Mom held us together. Whatever had been wrong with her reversed itself. Her color came back, she lost weight, she took on a second job, and she started volunteering again.
Despite not having a lot of savings—I had switched banks once I turned eighteen—I started college at the University of Wyoming.
I had scholarships that covered most of what I needed, and a loan from my English teacher that covered the rest. I didn’t tell my mother that I was going. I don’t know why. I think I just assumed that she knew, given the mail that came from the college. I had Dad sign anything that needed to be signed. Nobody talked about it. Mom never said, “I know that money is tight, but…” I turned in my two-week notice at the hotel I worked at, washed my laundry, packed clothes and a few other things, and—went.
When I got there, I didn’t know my own phone number at my dorm room yet.
The first night I was at college, I went out to a freshman orientation thing that my roommate, Graciela, had opted to skip. The phone rang off the hook, at least two dozen prank calls of someone “screaming incoherently.” Graciela eventually left the phone off the hook.
By the time I went home for the first time, in October, Mom claimed that she had known all along that I was going to college. She even told everyone that she had saved up “pin money” to give me the last of what I needed that first semester.
I didn’t think, or talk, about it.
I slowly scraped my way out of my identity-theft issues. I fought with credit reporting agencies and wrote letters and studied accounting. The guy who had ripped Dad off initially had gone to prison, with the police telling us that “someday” we might receive pennies on the dollar, based on the guy’s prison-labor wages, at something like a dollar an hour.
Then Mom got sick with liver cancer and Dad got hit by the identity thieves again.
It wiped my parents out. They were lucky they had health insurance.
I had locked everything down, so the thief wasn’t able to get much from me—and I was quickly able to get the charges reversed. But the teacher who had loaned me the money I needed for my first semester got hit, too, at the same time. She lost her house.
It wasn’t until this year that it all started coming out. Dad found some bills stuffed between the drywall and the foundation, after he had had to make some repairs due to water damage last spring. Bills for credit cards taken out under my English teacher’s name.
I tracked down five hundred thousand dollars that Mom stole from us. But never what she did with it.
Afterward, that heart full of ashes, which I kept, seemed mawkishly appropriate.
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