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Politics

Here's how the internet attacked me

Robert J. Samuelson on

WASHINGTON -- I got hacked. It was scary.

In this age of cybereverything, we all live in dread that we're going to be somehow attacked by the internet. Nearly everyone seems vulnerable. The internet is changing how we work, play, socialize, shop -- and what we love and fear. We're all exposed to its excesses, eccentricities, pleasures and pains.

Your data is for sale, as my colleague Geoffrey A. Fowler points out. If there is a saving grace, it is this: We assume that "bad stuff" always happens to somebody else. Well, not always.

My encounter with bad stuff began a few weeks ago when I received a letter from the Social Security Administration, via "snail mail." By itself, this was neither alarming nor threatening. If you're 65 or over (I am 73), you receive regular notices from Social Security and its first cousin, Medicare.

The letter looked authentic -- and was. "Thank you for using Social Security's online services," it said. "On June 28, 2019, you successfully created an online account with the Social Security Administration." This, too, seemed innocuous, except for one troubling detail: I DIDN'T CREATE AN ONLINE ACCOUNT WITH THE SOCIAL SECURITY ADMINISTRATION.

True, I already receive my monthly Social Security benefit through electronic deposit into my bank. But that had been going on for years. It was the only contact I desired with the Social Security Administration (SSA). Perhaps SSA was quietly expanding its bureaucratic reach. Or not. I decided to call the 800 number in the letter. (The 800-number seemed legitimate, because the same number appeared on many SSA sites.)

 

The wait was about an hour. I was repeatedly tempted to hang up. I'm glad I didn't. The woman who answered was courteous and helpful. Yes, my personal data had been altered, so that my monthly benefit would be diverted to someone else's bank account, not mine. She reinstated the correct address and put a "block" on the account, meaning that unless I visited an SSA office, my personal information could not be changed.

"You will continue to receive your monthly payments," the SSA promised. That's reassuring, if true. (Note: Anyone familiar with my policy views knows that I favor benefit cuts for the affluent elderly. Accepting benefits now may seem hypocritical. Not so. I would gladly cut mine as part of an overall program.)

Just how my personal data was altered remains a mystery to me and, perhaps, to the SSA. "It's hard to know how identity thieves obtain personal information used to commit this type of fraud," said SSA Inspector General Gail Ennis in an e-mail.

We do know some things, however.

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