Bureaucratic tangle, seen from the inside

CONSUMING INTERESTS

November 30, 2008|By DAN THANH DANG | DAN THANH DANG,dan.thanh.dang@baltsun.com

With a name like mine, you might imagine it's rare to hear it pronounced or see it spelled correctly.

For as long as I can remember, I've fielded phone calls for "Dan" and letters addressed to Mr. Dang. It happened so often that I gave up trying to fix the flubs since I grew weary of repeating myself. "No, no ... Dan Thanh is my first name, not Dan, and my last name is Dang. The first name rhymes with won ton and the last rhymes with bang. And, no, I am not a dude."

Creative interpretations of my name were so commonplace that I thought nothing of it when the Social Security Administration began sending me benefits statements years ago that were addressed to "Thanh T. Dang." So what if they mucked up my name? All my other data were accurate, from my annual earnings since 1987 to my date of birth and Social Security number. No big whoop, right?

Wrong, wrong, wrong and so misguided.

What I thought was just a tiny error turned into two such wickedly frustrating weeks of governmental absurdity that it made me want to gouge my eyeballs out with a spoon to stop the pain.

It started as I stood in line at the Motor Vehicle Administration office in Parkville with just a few weeks to go before my license expired. I took a number, got my photo taken, filled out some forms, and then sat slack-jawed as the clerk told me that I could not get a renewal because the name on my license did not match the name connected to my Social Security number. It was a new policy, he said, instituted by Homeland Security.

The MVA clerk told me to come back with my Social Security card. So that's exactly what I did the next day. Another MVA clerk took one look at it, shook his head "No" and then directed me to the SSA.

Now the mere thought of walking into the MVA can make a grown man weep, but the very idea that I needed one government office to fix something in order to get another government office to fix something else made me want to be ill, or maybe belt out a song: "The Impossible Dream."

Being a level-headed consumer, though, I decided to prepare for my SSA visit the next day.

I gathered my Social Security card, a couple of IRS W-2 records, a couple of pay stubs, my passport and the benefits statements that SSA had sent me. By the time my number was called after sitting in the Towson branch for hours, I had convinced myself that there was no way I would encounter any problems.

Wrong again.

The SSA clerk soon informed me that my government-issued passport was not a legitimate form of identification. When I presented my old card, which was typed on a typewriter and displayed my last name, comma, middle name and then first name, she informed me the SSA would never issue a card with a name in that order. I then told her that SSA must have screwed up eight other cards since my brothers, sisters and parents had the exact same cards with names in the exact same order, which were issued to us when we came to this country from Vietnam in 1975.

She was unmoved.

She also was not interested in looking at my SSA statements or my other documents corroborating that I was, indeed, the same person. I needed, she said, a birth certificate. Even one that is written in Vietnamese, I asked? "You should have taken care of this earlier," she scolded me, squinting.

I squinted right back at her, and said, "So I should have known - even though it's never been a problem before and the Social Security Administration has never, ever informed me before that my old card was not valid - that I needed to update my Social Security card? And you're also telling me that it's my fault someone at SSA typed my name wrong into your system all those years ago and that somehow my family is the only family in this entire country that has typewriter-issued cards with our last name, middle name and first name in that exact order? Is that what you're saying?"

She called over a supervisor, who proceeded to scold me, too. They apologized for my trouble and waited for me to step aside as the line grew behind me.

I had no choice but to leave. I was out-squinted.

They did hand me a SSN verification form that included a SSN (mine), the name assigned to that number (which was technically me) and advice on how to protect those precious digits. But while the SSA did not believe me or the government-issued documents that said I was the person I professed to be, they felt perfectly OK about handing me data that they were unsure was mine. I felt like I was in The Twilight Zone.

It only got worse when I called SSA's hot line. I waited 35 minutes to speak to a human, who couldn't understand why the Towson office wouldn't accept my passport. "Our procedures say birth certificates or passports may be used," she said. When I asked why I encountered the roadblock, she matter-of-factly told me each office makes up its own policy.

I wanted to weep.

"Did you try going to another branch?" she asked.

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