Thursday, October 12, 2006

Paranoia comes with the territory

It’s hard to read a newspaper or watch the nightly news without coming up with a story idea. Not that I need more. I have five novels in progress and a drawer full of files labeled, “story ideas.” It’s not that every story in the paper is a crime story, either. It’s just that writing crime fiction lends itself to developing a criminal mindset. Read an article on the value of certain native hardwood trees, you immediately think TREE RUSTLERS. Read about a genetically engineered hypoallergenic cat, you think PEOPLE WITH ALLERGIES WOULD KILL FOR ONE OF THOSE. Even a seemingly innocuous item—like the pay and go device offered by some credit card companies—leads to criminal speculation. They’re supposed to save time and make life easier, but you think, Oh yeah? What happens when that instant pay-pass device gets lost or stolen? Could you steal someone's information by brushing her purse or his pocket with a reading device? Or frame someone by surreptitiously borrowing his swipe-and-go and using it at the scene of a crime? (So maybe I have watched too many episodes of Law and Order.)

Our information-age society facilitates crime. Pfishing scammers prey on the naive, spammers on the desperate. Want to learn how professional criminals do it? Just go online. YouTube has videos that give step-by-step instructions on how to make and use dandy stuff--like burglary tools. They even offer safety warnings—always be careful to wear eye protection when you’re grinding the hacksaw blade to make your lock-picks.

Once your mind starts moving in a criminal direction, everything suggests nefarious possibilities. Just bought a house? You start wondering if the lady from the title company was from a real company. Have you ever asked for IDs at a closing? After all, anyone with a computer and a half-decent printer can fake documents. And if you're buying a car from a newspaper ad, how do you know it wasn’t stolen?

Not long after I moved into my condo, I received a census survey that was originally sent to the previous tenant. She didn’t respond, so the census people transferred their attention to me. Their survey asked all kinds of nosey questions—like how much money do you make? (And it wasn’t even a census year.) When I filed the survey in my circular file, they sent someone to my building to tell the doorman to have me call them. (These people don’t give up easily.) How hard would it be to send people a fake census form? Or just tell their doorman to have them call your (prepaid, untraceable cell phone) number with their census data?

Although the census bureau doesn’t release individual forms for 75 years, they disseminate composite data as soon as they compile it—free. On the internet. And the newspaper lists who sold what property to whom and for what, the assessed value, and the taxes. Handy internet satellite-picture sites let you zoom in on individual properties.

Since Rebecca Schaeffer was murdered in 1989, drivers license information has been restricted in most states, but if you don't mind breaking the law you can get people’s driving records from the Secretary of State's Office on-line for $30. Judging by the solicitations I‘ve received—the Secretary of State also distributes car registration information to insurance companies and warranty resellers; the county clerk gives voter lists to political parties.

And for a modest fee, websites like offer access to--among other things--genealogy info; birth, adoption, marriage, divorce, and death, records; military and naturalization records; obituaries; probate records; estate records; real estate records; corporate filings; federal court dockets; civil, criminal, district, and superior court filings; credit reports; small claims records; bankruptcies; judgment files; lien records; identity thefts; voter registrations; IP addresses; unlisted phone numbers; DMV records; driving records; drivers license files; reverse license plates; reverse phone lookups; warrant files; police records; DUI files; juvenile files; criminal files and indictments; arrest records and felony arrests; sentencing files; correctional files; parole records; sex offenders; and an inmate locator.

When you know about scams and swindles, you get crazy if your credit card or bank statement is late. Never mind that the logical explanation is the Post Office is delivering your mail by way of Sydney, Australia. Once you know that banks and credit card companies keep serious rip-offs out of the news, you’re sure your mail’s been waylaid as soon as it’s overdue. The scary world we live in is all the more so if you’re hip to the criminal opportunities.

But the upside for crime writers—if you can live with the paranoia—is that the story possibilities are endless.

1 comment:

Barbara D'Amato said...

Good points, Michael. It's so easy when you're in a hurry, or some things aren't going right--and when do things all go well?--to let down your guard. We need to be alert, at very least, to what's going on around us.