Stopping identity theft and credit card fraud...

I just watched a CNN special on "How to Rob a Bank." It mostly dealt with how individuals stole from banks using various forms of identity theft. Now, I'm not paranoid about such things, but it seems that one of the more common ways to be victimized is to have credit cards opened up in one's name by others. It also appears that the most common way that this happens is through those credit card applications received in the mail (how many do you get a week? Maybe one a day?). Clearly, such credit card offers should be shredded or torn up immediately, but there are still a number of ways that they might fall into the wrong hands.

The best way to avoid this problem altogether is to prevent companies from sending you credit card applications in the first place. The way that the companies get your information is through the three credit reporting bureaus, and fortunately, those bureaus must listen if you tell them not to give out your name. There are two different ways to do this: online or by phone. You can call 1–888-567-8688 or visit https://www.optoutprescreen.com. You have two options for opting out of credit offers -- if you do it online or over the phone only, you're off the list for 5 years, and when the mail starts to come again, you'll have to opt out once more. Or, if you fill out a form and mail it in, you can opt out for life. Note that opting out does require giving them your social security number, so before you do, make absolutely sure you're at the right website. If you have doubts, call the number.

It's a wonderful thing! I did it about 6 months ago, and I've not received a single credit card offer in the mail.

One thing to note is this will not stop mail from companies with which you are already affiliated. They may still send you offers or sell your information to other firms that do. Most commonly, these will be things like your bank and insurer. So, be sure to check the privacy policy for these organizations and be sure to tell them that they MAY NOT share they're information with their affiliates. If you do this, your junk mail will be greatly, greatly reduced as will your exposure to identity theft.


Character or Plot Driven?

It seems like the shows most popular to watch and the books most popular to read are plot driven. Like an episode of 24, the characters are merely players, reacting to a series of events. We learn about the characters by their response to situations rather than their internal motivations. In fact, their motivations may be entirely unknown, and, though interesting, not entirely relevant to understanding the story.

It's for this reason -- this lack of depth -- that plot driven novels and programming are lambasted by critics, and we, as the consumers of such media, are likewise criticized. Is this criticism warranted? I think yes, and the reason why is because our lives themselves have come plot instead of character driven.

When was the last time you did something simply because you wanted to do it -- something that no external force dictated or required? Does your work satisfy your character, or merely the physical requirements of your existence? Are the other people in your life flat characters that act as props, or are your story and theirs interconnected beyond common events?

It may seem like my expectations are unreasonably high, but the reality is that it is human nature to stick to the plot driven. It's significantly less complicated and still very satisfying. To make the commitment to leading a character driven life is actually much more complicated than it seems, and I am in need of it more than anyone.

What is the character driven life?
  1. Who you want to be (your character) drives the things you do, the things you study, the people you associate with, and how you spend your free time.
  2. When you do find yourself in a situation, of your own making or not, your response is a conscious product of your character, not merely a reaction.
  3. You realize that the people who play different acts of your life are also characters in their own right. Regardless of how well you think you've figured them out and want to reduce them to plot elements, you give them the benefit of the doubt.
So, that said, sometimes it's fine to get just read a Clancy novel.


Home buying 101

Well, as a first time home buyer, I learned an awful lot. Here's a partial list:
  1. Realtors aren't worth it. I apologize to the people I know that are real estate agents.
  2. Neighbors are enamored by the "new guy."
  3. The utilities will cut off your gas, power, and water with impunity.
  4. Owning a home makes you feel entitled, even required, to shop at Home Depot.
So, lets talk about realtors -- the other stuff is pretty self explanatory. Let me first say that I found my house on craigslist after 3 weeks of using MLS and arranging with realtors to see homes. Of the dozen realtors I talked to and houses I looked at, I only felt like one was honest and fair. Some were downright slimy. I ran into two situations as a home buyer: (1) the realtor I met was the one listing the house, or (2) an agent who wanted to help me buy a place (to be my "buyer's agent".)

In the first case, some of the the listing agents hardly wanted to talk to me because I didn't have an agent, as if I wasn't serious about buying the house. One listing agent sent his underling apprentice to show the house, but he couldn't get the little key box thingy open to get in. When they did show the house, all I know is that looking at homes that were listed as for sale by owner was so much more pleasant. FSBOs were willing to talk about the home honestly, it's pluses and minuses, and actually had information about how much utilities cost, what the neighborhood was like, and all those things. Realtors tend to gloss over a lot of those details.

In the second situation, my buyer's-agent-to-be always used this line, "You know, the seller pays for the agent, don't you?" as if, somehow, the 3% that goes to him for helping my find a house doesn't somehow affect the final price. I had one listing agent (the one I actually felt comfortable talking to) who told me directly, "Well if you don't have an agent, we'll go ahead and take 3% off of the price." I think that's always how it should be. In general, I found it a little audacious that I could call a real estate company to look as a house, and they would send out an agent to try and represent me in buying a house that one of that company's own agents was listing. How can that not represent a conflict of interest? It's like two lawyers from the same firm representing both the plaintiff and defendant in a case.

I'll be honest, I think that realtors (especially for buyers) are on the way out. I was worried about all the paperwork and the legalities, but there are standard contracts in most states, and the reality is that the title company and your mortgage lender/broker do almost all the work. After all, those two entities are largely indifferent to the price and are highly motivated in helping you buy the home -- they want your loan and want it to be on the up and up. Realtors love to quote statistics that home buyers get lower prices when they use an agent, but at least one recent study reported in the NY times disputes that. Besides, don't the realtors also say that they get the highest sale prices, too? Is that with or without the 6% commission?


Here, smell this.

Smells are intriguing to me. Mostly because they are generally involuntary. We experience smells all the time simply by existing and moving from place to place, and those smells can bring back waves of history and emotion -- just ask any man what it's like when something reminds him of her hair or her lotion. Smells even seem capable of encapsulating an idea. One of my favorite scents is that of lawn mowing. There's just something about the smell of moist grass mingled with gasoline on a warm summer morning that reminds me of hard work.

But, for as universal as smell is, there is one part thing that the genders differ greatly on. Women love to share smells like candles and perfumes, and men love to share stenches. A group of girls can spend hours in bath and body works, sharing the latest lotion scents, whereas the highlight of man's work day may well be reached when he manages to trap a foul gaseous emission in the bathroom stall long enough for the next occupant to be brought to tears.

To further illustrate, picture a 3 month old moldy Tupperware container in the fridge. A woman would examine the container and oh so carefully lift the corner and faintly sniff for an odor. At the slightest hint of stench, she'd immediately discard the whole container.

A man, on the other hand, will eye the container at first, attempting to judge the lethality of whatever might lie within. If he thinks he can handle it, he'll open the container, stick his nose in, and inhale deeply, knowing full well that the smell may be absolutely horrifying. Like he was sucker punched, he may double over, eyes bulging and gasping for breathe. And when it's all over, something in his pea brain will convince him that someone else might want to experience this same terrifying smell, so he'll wander around until he finds a buddy and orders, "Here, smell this..."

In the deep end...

Well, it has been far too long since I wrote anything, and not without good reason. I have been absolutely in over my head for the last month or so. I've had stressful nights, spent days on the phone, paced, worried, and on and on. No, I'm not proposing. I bought a house.

I am now a land owner. Of the three inalienable human rights, I have exercised the last in the most American fashion of buying a home. And now, the bank owns me . . . for the next 30 years.