My Stolen Life

My handbag was stolen two months ago. It happened in seconds in a mall in Turin, Italy. I never saw the thief, and neither did my husband, sitting two meters from the scene of the crime a fast food Japanese restaurant.

How is such criminal skill even possible? There was almost nobody around. Now, after two months, I do vaguely remember though a nice young woman, sitting with a child, next to my table. Was it she who grabbed my bag off the back of a chair and escaped with it?

A week later, I read that a gang of four women, convicted of serial handbag thefts in Italy, was finally put behind the bars. Even though found guilty several times, they were always released from custody because they had either small children or were pregnant. So maybe they relied on the handbags of other women to feed their numerous children?!

But that would be a topic for a novel, and not what I want to write about. I will focus on this accident from a different angle. Because it can only be compared to an accident, a personal disaster, as if a truck ran over me. No use asking, was it my fault? Should I blame myself for leaving my chair to order a second beer to go with my sushi? And why on earth did I center my earthly life inside one rather small handbag? Why did I visit a shopping mall taking with me all of my traveling documents, credit cards, checkbook, USB backup, health insurance card, Iphone, address book, prescriptions, etc.

I used to carry everything in one bag during the bombings in Belgrade, Serbia, or during political demos when I might have been arrested. But in those dire-straits years, in the nineties, my home was never bombed and I was not jailed by the Serbian police. I didn't even lose my bag.

However, in 2004, during a pleasant event in Amsterdam, in peace, my handbag was stolen in a bar. I was traveling, so I lost pretty much lost the same set of documents, meaning all I could carry to support my life on the road. I lost cash, credit cards, phone, some jewelry, my diary, my address book, my passport, my visa. But the damage I suffered 11 years ago cannot be compared to the damage I suffered a month ago. The thieves have gotten much better.

Within half an hour, they managed to rush to ATM machines with my bank cards and, without a PIN or a credit limit, they robbed the banks of far more money than I could legally withdraw myself. These "forchetta" hacks, which involve some kind of ATM hacking gadget, are getting pretty well known. But of course the banks don't want to take responsibility for these thefts. They prefer to pretend that the ATMs are secure, and want me to absorb the loss.

Then there are travel documents. In 2004 I could replace them without much fuss, but this is an age of terrorism. So, far as my documents are concerned: Italian, Serbian and American: for each piece of plastic that I've carried for years on end, I have to go to the original country to have my biometrics redone. I must pay all the uncomfortable costs of travel without any documents, while waiting for the new ones, being interrogated about my life! As if I weren't already in their databases; as if they had never heard of me, as if I had never existed! I was robbed, so I am the suspect.

This disaster crippled my daily life for the following two months. I still cannot travel as I want, work, or pay . I realize how vulnerable we are nowadays, since we're supported by data and electronic gates and barriers. My USB key contained non encrypted backup of my computer's hard disk. I carefully backed up all my books, essays, mail, films, photos, music and various secrets. Published and unpublished. I am exposed totally, these thieves, if they bother to look, can know everything about me. They have my email addresses, they know my friends and foes. They even have the keys to my front door.

In some ways, losing access to your home and documents is worse than having your home and documents physically destroyed. Because it means that someone can interfere with my life, they have stolen the power to spy on me at will. My daily life has been hacked, and somebody else is, if not living my stolen life through fake ID, then at least surveilling it. I live in subconscious fear of blackmail, threats, violence!

The police told me theft like mine happens everyday, to many people. And indeed, sometimes hackers steal entire databases of people's names, addresses, credit cards — colossal leaks of a quarter of a million people at once. Even American spies with security clearances have had their security declarations stolen by the Chinese. How humiliating to be a SONY executive and have your business emails leaked by tools of the North Koreans. Or to be an activist stalked by political enemies who want to aggressively "dox" you and your family.

Will I ever get my dear purse back? Often the victims get their documents back through some weird channels, or just from the trash collectors. But not in my case.

I am still waiting for the second shoe to drop. I have a feeling this is not the end. It depends on the fantastic skill of the thieves and my legal ability to fight them back and re-assert my existence to bankers, police and immigration bureaus. I could write a novel on a twilight struggle of this kind.

One feels that the stakes are growing and the pace of the trouble is accelerating. Still, I will never forget that July 6th between 1.30 and 2.00 PM. A very close friend of mine died that very day at that very hour. It was an unlucky, scarifying moment, although no one killed me, no one struck me or bruised me, I was stripped of my virtual identity. The impact of that loss is like a virtual rape, a small death in itself.

Oh yes, one small detail: during the war times I carried sleeping pills in my bag: enough to put me to sleep forever, if I had to avoid torture. (I had read that Freud family did the same during World War II, and it seemed like a wise precaution.) Sometimes, in conditions of real fear, it is a psychological comfort to feel that one can put a clean end to one's self. But what about my virtual life? What unknown antitheft device could ever put a clean end to that?