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Meth heads, identity theft and a bucket of lemons

Jack is a good neighbour. Maybe a little too good. After forty years on the street, he knows everyone and is always willing to lend a hand. He admires hard work and loves a good chat. But, shortly after moving into the neighbourhood, I noticed his behaviour was a little odd.

First, he started asking when we were going to fix our front gate. Badly hung by the previous owner, the white picket gate dragged on the ground and wouldn’t close properly. I put it on the to do list and forgot about it. Within weeks, Jack was outside, fixing the gate himself.

“Frontage” he said at the time “You’ve got to think about frontage.”

Then I noticed that Jack hated when anyone left anything outside their house. My bins were moved into the front yard within half an hour of being emptied. Always quickly and secretly, when no one was around. Once, I left a bucket of lemons from our tree out for the neighbours to help themselves to. I saw him come and check the bucket three times until, on finding it finally empty, he moved it next to our front door.

I couldn’t figure out what his problem was. At first I thought he wanted the street to look nice, that perhaps he was the kind of snob or control freak you become after four decades on the one block. But aside from his quirks, Jack was always so laidback.

And then another neighbour filled me in on the reason for Jack’s strange behaviour.

Around five years ago, someone stole Jack’s recycling bin.

It showed up a week later in the reserve behind our houses. Because Jack is the kind of guy to stencil his address on to his bin, it was easily returned.

Then, a month later, he received a phone call late a night.

“Thanks for the TV.” the voice sniggered before hanging up.

Jack didn’t think much of the odd call until a good twelve months had passed and the letters from the debt collectors started to arrive.

It turns out Jack had failed to make the agreed payments on a television he’d purchased from the local Harvey Norman. Jack rang the debt collectors and tried to explain that he hadn’t purchased a television and had no idea what they were talking about.

Until he remembered the phone call.

The con artists who had stolen his recycling bin had rummaged through the contents until they’d found enough personal information to convince Harvey Norman to give them a line of credit on the television.

Phone bills, rates statements, bank statements and a wealth of other personal information had been taken from the bin and used to steal Jack’s identity.

According to the police, the con artists were probably meth heads. Several meth addicts had set up shop at nearby Bell City hotel complex, a stones throw from Jack’s front door. It was some of these users who were probably responsible.

In America, a good 90% of identity theft can be connected back to meth users and suppliers. It’s similar here in Australia.

“Anybody I knew that did meth was also doing fraud, identity theft or stealing mail.” says Tammie Carroll, a convicted identify thief and meth user. “We helped each other out, whatever we needed to do that day. They all had their own little role.”

Meth increases concentration, making it perfect for users willing to churn through pages and pages of paperwork for that useful piece of data. It also allows addicts to avoid violent crime and stay under the radar.

Watching Jack drag in the neighbourhood bins the minute they are empty, peering down the street for suspect characters and worried that an empty lemon bucket will somehow encourage more identity theft, my neighbour has sadly become more like the meth heads who scammed him: paranoid and obsessive.

Nicholas J. Johnson is a Melbourne magician, author, entertainer and collector of scams. You can hear more about meth heads and identity theft in the Scamapalooza episode “Kids Today” with James Munton.

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