Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Could the real me please stand up?

Yesterday I found myself in a small windowless interview room, with two people flashing gold badges at me and wanting to "ask me a few questions". A very long way from where I had planned my day to go, I must say! Smithy and I were going to the city to 1) renew my re-entry visa 2) wire our trip deposit to Nepal 3) fax confirmation of said deposit to Nepal 4) buy a new Lotto ticket and 5) visit the travel agent who acts for the company we want to use to climb Mera Peak. All pretty straightforward, you would think...
So, first things first, let's go to the Dept of Immigration and get my visa. I'm a Pom with permanent residency, but need a visa to be allowed back into the country if I go overseas. My last visa ran out last year. So this trip was mainly to find out if I needed to produce all the original paperwork proving my permanent resident status again, or if I could just be reissued with a new visa. Turns out, I can just get a new visa. Take a number and wait. We sat and waited, making satisfied sounds to each other about how efficiently the queue is moving along...quite a surprise for government bureaucracies. Within 15 minutes, my number is called and off we trot to Cubicle 18. Looks like we're going to be out of here in under half an hour! I tell the officer that I just need a new visa and hand over my visa. We're all chatting and joking when the officer, let's call her Jane, taps at her keyboard repeatedly, tsks, mutters 'Won't be long' and walks off. Comes back in a minute or too, taps the keyboard again and leaves with my passport in hand.
20 minutes later, back she comes. There's bit of a problem that she is not able to discuss. Could I please fill in as much of this form as I can and her manager will be here in a minute. 20 minutes after that, Jane returns with her manager who wants me to go upstairs to answer some questions. What's this all about? I ask. It's that fake passport isn't it? He can't answer any of my questions, if I would just come with him. They are waiting for me upstairs. Can Smithy come too? Of course she can. As we head to the lift, I tell the manager I've never had any problems before. Got my first visa no dramas, why the problems now? Sorry, he doesn't know anything.
Up we go to Compliance and Investigations. Good grief! We're kept waiting another ten minutes or so, then the investigator comes out and introduces himself (let's call him John) and leads us to the little interview room so I can answer questions about how I came to be in the country, and how I came to have this passport! There's another investigator in the room - Jill, shall we say - and they both flash their badges at Smithy and me so we know they really are who they say they are. It's about now I wish I had a gold badge of my own so they'd know I was really who I say I am!
This is about a fake passport. Back in 1998, a supposed friend stole my ID, got herself a passport in my name and used that as proof of ID to get a loan which she then reneged on. How did I know all this? The loan company rang me wanting to know why I had missed my first payment!
It took a lot of interviews with police and the loan company to get my name cleared and exonerated from any responsibility for the loan. Meanwhile, my 'friend', Joanne Cole (her real name) had fled the country on my passport. Many calls to the British High Commission later I was assured that the episode would not hamper my own efforts to get a passport when the time came....and it didn't. Nor, fortunately, was my credit rating impaired - I did include a statement of past events in case my name had been blacklisted - and I've travelled in and out of Australia happily and without incident over the past three years.
I tell John and Jill that I emigrated here with my parents in 1970. I relate the above story, tell them when I got my passport and give them details of my last trip overseas. They leave the room for 20 or so minutes to check some details. Smithy's muttering that she won't leave my side. She'll bail me out if they arrest me. She won't let them deport me without a struggle. She's a great comfort, a tower of strength is my Smithy.
Finally, back come John and Jill and it's all smiles. Apparently the fraudulent passport has been flagged and it tripped the system recently and they had to verify that I was the real person. They showed me a picture of Jo and I confirmed it was her. Smithy was speculating that whatever she had done, it had to have been after I got issued with my first visa. I suggested it had to have been since we arrrived back in Australia in 2004 as I hadn't had any hassles returning that year. Neither John nor Jill would give details, but they gave me my passport back and John took us back downstairs so I could get my visa, telling me he would put a very clear note on my case file that I was legitimate. We had to wait again, then got called back to Cubicle 18 with Jane, where I finally got to hand over $120 for a new 5-year visa. Jane said 'You have no idea how much she (Jo) has messed things up for you' and she confirmed that Jo had tripped the system in the 2003/2004 period.
So, an hour and a half after entering the building, we finally got back outside, with me clutching my passport with its hard-won visa stuck securely inside!
My only concern now is that when I finally do get around to taking out Australian citizenship, I'll be denied as a 'bad', 'undesirable' character cos of this bloody fake passport business. Jane reckons I should be OK, but a statuary declaration outlining the situation probably wouldn't hurt.
I've wanted to track this jo down for years and give her a good punch on the nose for what she's done. You can imagine how I freaked when, shortly after moving to Brisbane in 2000, I went to join the library and was told there was someone else of my name already joined! I mean, mine is not exactly a common name and the stolen ID thing was still pretty raw. The idea that that low-life was passing herself off as me made me anxious and pissed off, but there wasn't much I could do unless I wanted to stake out the homes of every person in the White Pages with the same initial and surname as me. After awhile, the whole thing faded - not forgotten, but no longer an anxiety. Then in 2004, Smithy and I entered the Gold Coast Half Marathon as part of our fitness regime for our upcoming trip to Nepal. Out come the results, and immediately under my name, is that of another woman with exactly the same name! It's that woman who's also a library member. And I know it's not low-life Jo cos she's a big fat slob who couldn't outrun a cold, let alone do a half-marathon! There is another, legitimate 'me' out there! Weird!
Anyway, the rest of the day went as planned, albeit slightly behind schedule. We've now paid our deposits for Annapurna Circuit, Mt Kailash/Everest Base Camp trips and flight to Lhasa from Kathmandu. It's all systems go now! Yihaa! Confirmation of deposit duly faxed, chat to travel agent accomplished, lotto ticket checked (didn't win a brass razoo) and new one bought. Then it's home for bit of a lie down to recover from all the excitement.