With all the terrorist threats from within and without, it is somewhat ironic to me that I, a taxpaying citizen born in the United States with no criminal record or even a traffic ticket to my name, would encounter significant snafus when trying to get a passport to travel to Amsterdam this month for a vacation.
I’d planned the trip several months before, but shortly after submitting my passport application on April 17, I decided to postpone my May 14 trip indefinitely since I’d just spent a bundle moving to my new coop — plus which my boyfriend had balked at going in the first place. It turned out to be a wise move on my part.
Granted, I should have applied earlier, but supposedly if one paid extra for rush service, one could obtain a passport in about two weeks' time. I had an old passport which I’d received without incident years ago for my first and, thus far, last trip abroad to England, but it was still packed away somewhere — who knows where — and was likely expired in any case. So I went to the post office, submitted the required forms and documents, and waited for my passport to arrive via prepaid express mail within about two weeks.
A fortnight later, on May 1, I received a call from the National Passport Center in New Hampshire which was processing my application. A woman informed me that the ID I’d submitted was not sufficient to establish my identity. I’d provided a New York State non-driver’s ID, which I thought was identical for all intents and purposes to a regular driver’s license. I’d certainly gone through hell to procure it a few years ago — having been compelled to do so after my bank insisted that it was now needed to open an account or withdraw funds — due, of course, to post-9/11 precautions. It had served me well since I’d obtained it, and I assumed it was as good as gold as far as establishing that I was, indeed, who I purported to be. Granted, the photo was horrible, but better mortified than stuck at the bank with no cash with a dumb look on my non-identifiable face.
The postal worker who processed my form two weeks before had enclosed a photocopy of my New York State ID along with an original copy of my birth certificate (which she assured me would be returned when I received my new passport) and sent my application out via express mail.
In any case, the woman on the phone this fine May morning informed me that I needed to submit five more forms of ID with my signature or photo, and rattled off many possible examples of same. When I asked why my ID was not sufficient, she said she didn’t know — that was something the passport analyst determined. She said that a letter with full details would be sent out to me, but had no more information as to why I’d been “singled out” for this special scrutiny.
Later that day, I began to get a funny feeling that maybe this had been a phony call. It just didn’t make any sense to me, since I’d heard and read nothing about extra ID being required for a passport. When I checked the US Department of State’s website, I could find nothing to that effect. Furthermore, many of the links which were provided for more information did not work — at least not on my computer on that evening. I suspected that many other fellow citizens anxious to finalize their vacation plans abroad had been jamming up the site; perhaps, I thought, it was simply overloaded with inquiries.
I had caller ID, so I checked the number the woman had called from that morning and called it back. I got a message saying this was a nonworking number, and to check the number and dial again. The message did identify the number as the New Hampshire Passport and Visa Center.
There was a central number I'd received when I applied for my passport to check on one’s application status, but of course due in part to an incredible number of applications this year and this season, I couldn’t get through that night. Everyone and their uncle, cousin, and half-brother’s dog was trying to do the same thing, and after going through all sorts of automated options, endless recorded entreaties to use the website, assurances that extra staff were working virtually nonstop to process applications, and finally being put on hold to talk to the next available agent, the service eventually just hung up on me after two attempts to get through.
Still imagining the worst, I starting searching the web for info on identity theft. I even called the local precinct. The more I thought about it, the more I suspected foul play. Bad enough I’d had to submit my original birth certificate along with my application, but now it seemed like someone was intent on getting enough ID to take over my identity. I thought perhaps the postal worker who took my application was involved in some elaborate mail fraud scheme, and planned to call the Bronx postmaster first thing next morning for good measure.
Overreacting? Perhaps, but it’s funny how many things can look suspicious in the wee hours — especially in an era when unscrupulous thieves can steal not just your money but your identity itself, while nefarious “homegrown” but foreign born terrorists posed as ordinary citizens while plotting to kill American servicemen and women in the name of jihad at Fort Dix as I waited on perpetual hold that night.
As luck and better timing would have it, I called the passport information number again early the next morning and actually got through to a human being. To my relief, I found out that this was indeed a legitimate request, and quite routine at that. I asked the undoubtedly harried woman who took my call why nothing I’d seen online or off had indicated anything about additional ID being needed. I also wondered why my non-driver’s license State ID was not acceptable. I pointed out that this system was making more work for her, me, and everyone else who got stuck in this potentially nail-biting situation. She was sympathetic, but did assure me that the request was legit. As for the non-working number message from the New Hampshire center, she said undoubtedly that was due to the fact that everyone would be calling there nonstop if they had access to it.
I got my letter from the National Passport Center in Portsmouth, New Hampshire via “express” mail on May 4. It provided a brief list of some of the documents I could submit in photocopy form to help established my identity. Required were at least five personal documents with either name/photo (and issue date) or name/signature (with issue date.)
But that wasn’t all. Though no one had told me about this additional little wrinkle, also enclosed was a three page “Supplemental Information Sheet” which asked for:
- The name, address, phone number, and date and place of birth of my mother, father, and all brothers and sisters and spouse (if married);
- Names, addresses, and phone numbers of two references who had known me at least five years;
- The name, address, and attendance dates of all schools I had attended in the US and abroad;
- Complete addresses for all my residences for the last ten years;
- The name, address, and phone number, with supervisor’s name, for all employers for the last ten years.
And finally, for applicants not born in the US, there were two additional lines provided to list when and where they first arrived in the United States. This seemed rather “underwhelming” to me, somehow. I could have thought of a lot more incisive and detailed questions to ask of visitors leaving our country in this day and age in light of the fact that I was being put through quite the wringer myself for the privilege of visiting the Van Gogh museum and perhaps taking in a few windmills.
After all, it wasn’t as if I was applying for a new job or another coop; I just wanted to visit a nice, peaceful city in the Netherlands for two weeks when the tulips were in bloom, and possibly see some West End plays in London if I decided to stay an additional week or two.
My conclusion? This little incident seemed just another example of my firmly held belief that the world has gone completely crazy in general, and that our security priorities are decidedly topsy-turvy in particular. Not only do I feel unsafe living in post-9/11 New York, USA, due to national security threats both internal and external, but in addition to having to be vigilant against the specter of identity theft, I can’t count on my own government to even establish my identity in the first place.
In fact, it’s not hard to imagine just how easy it could be for someone to steal my identity and be off to Amsterdam on my dime in less than a week’s time while I’d still be stuck here in identity limbo. It certainly seems like a piece of cake compared to obtaining a passport from my own government — while a pizza delivery man with murder on his mind obtains access to one of our nation's strongholds with no trouble at all.