I have a new phone number. It came with an unexpected bonus feature: a window into the life of its previous owner. As far as I can tell, Jane Doe didn’t tell a soul that she’d dropped this number and now her life is calling me. In one month, I’ve learned:

  • She’s employed. This I learned when her employer called me at 5:00 AM to see if she could work the daytime shift.
  • She’s involved in some sort of child custody dispute. I found that out when the district court left a message on my voice mail.
  • English isn’t her native language (She’d requested an interpreter; the court wanted to know what language she needed.).
  • She has bought at least one item from Sears. Since I was standing at just the right angle when the sales clerk typed “our” number in, I saw the computer display, which is how I learned Jane’s full name and street address.
  • She didn’t register the number with the Do Not Call registry, so I can’t tell if the large number of debt relief calls I’ve been getting are what anyone gets in today’s economy or if they were calling her specifically. Since I did register the number, at least those calls are going away.
  • While I’ve given Jane a generic Anglo-Saxon pseudonym, when I Googled her real name, it appears to be fairly common among African women, especially near Ethiopia.

Privacy? What privacy? Please note that I was handed all this information except for the origin of her name, and Googling that was hardly complicated. If I were a nasty person, I’d be well on my way to committing identity theft.

Quite naturally, I’ve started wondering how many places I’ve used my old phone number at and what someone will be learning about me fairly shortly. I update it when I can, of course, but I’m not going to catch every instance. What are those stores where I’ve shopped once, left my number behind, and will never be back to erase it? (Sears, probably. I only seem to buy something there once every five years.)

I get why the stores are using phone numbers as identifiers. Everyone has a database nowadays. Names are way too easy to misspell. Social Security numbers are verboten. Phone numbers are unique and everyone has theirs memorized. Plus, now you can take your number with you when you move, up to a point, so they’re more reliable than they used to be. But, okay, now I’m getting just a little uneasy about all the privacy/identity issues that go along with this. And no, I have no ideas about how to get around it, so I won’t do anything; I’ll just fret about it quietly in the back of my mind.

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