Jeff Gelles: Farewell, and beware enduring traps

credit-card-identity-theft
Identity theft fuels the $3 billion-a-year ID-theft-protection industry, which includes companies that sell credit monitoring as "protection."

After writing often about identity theft mostly as a consumer nightmare, it dawned on me recently why I find the topic irksome as well as scary. It's the role of the $3 billion-a-year ID-theft-protection industry - which includes companies that sell credit monitoring as "protection" from a crime that, wearing another hat, they fuel.

Confused? Ask yourself why it's harder for you to get $200 of your own money from an ATM near a store's entrance than it is for a fraudster to get $500 in instant credit using your name at checkout.

One of those requires you to know a PIN - a secret code that provides basic, antifraud protection. The other only requires the store to buy access to your credit score, based on records about you held at the Big Three credit bureaus. Unless you've imposed a "security freeze" on your file, which the credit agencies are required by state laws to offer, there's no PIN required.

Could a freeze be the default for us all? Sure, but it won't happen unless we demand it. Too many people make too much money from a system that Ed Mierzwinski of U.S. PIRG likens to a protection racket. "The difference is that if you pay the mob for protection, they don't burn down your store," he says. "If you pay for credit monitoring, it doesn't stop identity theft.

My modest proposal today is a bit of counter-spin. Let's rename the crime "credit theft," which is what it usually is, and point a finger at what drives it: the profits to be made from our overly loose system of frictionless lending.

As a young reporter, I often had to remind myself to focus on the big picture — to see the forest along with whatever burning trees demanded immediate attention. That sounds like the right goal now, too,  as I write my last column for The Inquirer, after 40 years in the news business and nearly two decades covering consumer issues.

Since launching this column in 2001, I have aimed to write about the world from a consumer's viewpoint - and, as one of my editors put it, to "stand for people getting a fair shake."

The idea was that business writers tend to focus on movers and shakers, and on who's making money, rather than on who's spending it or getting hurt by what they buy. We're also likely to overlook evidence that people are being tricked into spending or into paying more than they would in a competitive, transparent market. My job was to focus where others didn't.

Thankfully, competition usually keeps businesses on their toes. But when it's lacking - when you can't vote with your feet or learn you've been misled - you often have reason to squawk.

That's surely why many of today's complaints seem like hardy perennials.

Then, as now, people got burned by credit-file errors, a problem mitigated only a bit when Congress made credit agencies send a free annual report to anyone who asked. But the underlying problem is that the Big Three are an oligopoly - and, even worse, one you can't walk away from. Except when pitching things such as credit scores or monitoring, they don't really consider you a customer - their main business is selling data about you to others.

Is it a wonder I still hear complaints about cable companies? Not when they still face little or no competition, which is why they can raise prices at twice the rate of inflation - in Philly, it's the Comcast Tax - and insist you buy vast bundles of channels for the few you want. Until things change, consumers will gripe.

Some problems do get fixed - often thanks to pressure from consumers and scrappy groups such as Mierzwinski's that advocate on their behalf.

Early on, I wrote a lot about trickery in credit cards - particularly terms allowing lenders to charge big penalties and to impose sky-high rates if you missed a payment, even to another creditor. The trend's apotheosis was the we-can-do-whatever-the-heck-we-want clause, allowing lenders to shift terms "at any time, for any reason."

The lawyers who wrote that likely laughed all the way to the bank - until it was finally declared unfair and deceptive after the Crash of '08. That crisis also led to creation of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which has shown its moxie by making banks repay billions for past misdeeds and by working to nip new ones in the bud. Beware politicians who insist the CFPB needs to be knocked down to size. They're not protecting you.

Other stories showed how regulators can help markets run more fairly and efficiently - especially when they can bypass unwise deregulatory faith and the Libertarian-hued, anti-government extremism now dominating the GOP. We don't need less regulation or more regulation, just to be smarter about it.

During the Clinton years, for instance, Congress and the Federal Communications Commission backed "number portability" - the idea that you, not the phone carrier you first got it from, own the rights to your number.

Wireless carriers twice won delays. Then, hoping President Bush's FCC would see it their way, they pushed to postpone it again - forever. "Regulatory overkill," Verizon huffed.

Bush's FCC did the right thing, choosing to protect competition rather than carriers who wanted to use your phone number to lock you in. And Inquirer readers likely helped.

Hundreds answered my informal survey asking a question raised by Verizon's petition: whether they'd want carriers to spend $1 billion on portability, or that same $1 billion to fix dead spots. Nine of 10 said they'd prefer to be able to keep a number and switch. Portability has paid off lately for some as John Legere, T-Mobile's iconoclastic CEO, has broken ranks in his own overly concentrated industry to challenge some of its worst practices.

One recent development is how social media can amplify consumers' voices - and extend the reach of such wits as HBO's John Oliver, who helped push the FCC this year to reclassify broadband as telecommunications, in order to protect Net neutrality and an open Internet.

My parting advice? Watch your bills and statements - you never know what might appear. Holler if you or others are wronged - to businesses, to regulators, to Congress, and to journalists. And keep reading newspapers - with my thanks for sticking with this one.

Forty years ago, I began a career at a paper whose platform, penned by Joseph Pulitzer Jr., warned of the twin dangers of "predatory plutocracy and predatory poverty." We all still know the signs of predatory poverty: homelessness, illiteracy, drug abuse, broken families. We're more likely to miss predatory plutocracy. All too often, it's just business as usual.

Good luck to you all.


jgelles@phillynews.com

215-854-2776@jeffgelles

www.philly.com/consumer