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The other 'me,' spending my money

My financial doppelganger was living it up in Europe. I was paying.

My identity was stolen in August. It's a very creepy feeling.

I found out about the problem when I went to use my ATM card at a Pathmark and it was declined for insufficient funds. This had happened before, but was sometimes just a computer glitch that could be corrected with a phone call to the credit union where I've been a member for more than 30 years. That day in August, I called to check on my account balance. The answer was $23.75. There should have been more than $6,000.

"I'll be right there," I said.

On my way to the credit union, I went through the usual stages of grief people experience when told that their savings account has been cleaned out. There's shock, then denial, then anger, then bargaining, all followed by thoughts of suicide. Once there, I put on a calm demeanor to disguise the fact that I felt like the walking dead.

"Did you make an online purchase for $118.64 from" the teller asked as she scrolled through my account activity.

"I beg your pardon," I answered.

"On the same day, Aug. 22, there was a withdrawal of $106.27 by a company called Renfe in Madrid, Spain," she said.

My reply was something like, "Hummina, hummina, hummina.

My savings account had been looted by conquistadors from the old country. Renfe is a European travel service, and I had been financing rail travel all over Spain. There was a charge of $275.50 on Aug. 21; $197.50 on Aug. 20; $216.94 on Aug. 17, all from this Renfe. Whoever had stolen my identity was getting around.

There were purchases for hundreds of dollars worth of cosmetics from Norte-Sur Cosmeticos in the Spanish city of Huercal-Overa, and I assume for eyeglasses from Optifactory in Valencia. But not all the purchases were made in Spain. My Spanish doppelganger also had a taste for single-malt beverages, ordering more than $500 worth from Peter Sondheim's Bestwhisky in Stuttgart, Germany.

This all happened without my noticing because, well, I never worried about anything like that happening. I don't pore over my monthly credit union statements looking for bogus purchases, although I will from now on. And I could have caught this early. The looting of my account started with a modest charge of $6.37 from Netviagens, an online Portuguese travel agency on June 21. Like a fisherman, he let the fish take a nibble. The next day he set the hook with a $265 purchase of an airline ticket from Vueling Airlines.

Then he waited to see what would happen. The next purchase came almost a month later, from a British car-rental service for $230 on July 19. When that went through, my evil hermano in Spain went to town making purchases, sometimes twice a day, until Aug. 22, when he discovered, to his disappointment, I'm sure, that I was broke. In retrospect, it's almost funny to think that he probably found out the same day and the same way I did, when he attempted to buy something and was told there were insufficient funds. I can almost hear his criminal sigh, "Que lastima!" What a pity.

Police figure that my debit card had been skimmed either at a cash machine or a store where I used it to make a purchase. As I reviewed my account, I saw only one place where I wasn't a regular and where my car had been towed for emergency repairs about a week before the pillaging of my account commenced. Whoever stole my identity probably sold it to someone in Spain, where the name Deleon is common.

Fortunately, the money stolen from my account was insured, so I got it back. But, afterward, the world looked like a different place.

I became hypervigilant about putting my identity in harm's way. I stopped using my debit card at any business smaller than Staples. I started using cash as if it were, well, cash. I noticed how more and more people use debit or credit cards to buy a cup of coffee, which always seemed ridiculous to me, but now looks more like unprotected sex. And the more of an atavistic Luddite I became in a world of interconnectivity out the wazoo, the more I felt like a stranger in a familiar land. I paid cash for a hotel room in Pittsburgh, and the front desk reacted as if I had asked to take flying lessons without learning how to take off or land.

I realize I am on the wrong side of history - worse, the wrong side of the marketplace. It seems that people can't wait to give away private and potentially harmful personal information on Facebook or Twitter - "Wow, Hawaii is really great. Won't be back in my house at 2829 Serendipity Lane for another two weeks." In some cases, it's not as if identities are being stolen as much as abandoned.

We live in a consumer culture where convenience trumps caution, where stalkers await the unaware, and where the pickings are mighty easy. And I didn't realize how easy until those Spanish chickens came home to roost.