The fast-growing crime of identity theft lies at the core of Jenefer Shute's riveting novel, User I.D., but she takes the phenomenon to a whole new level. Vera de Sica, an ESL teacher in New York City, travels to Los Angeles for a conference and, upon her departure, loses her rental car to a con artist's elaborate scam. Vera is amazed that the police seem neither surprised nor particularly upset over the crime; she herself feels Guilty. Foolish. Violated. She returns to New York, astonished at her stupidity, but assuming that the embarrassing incident is behind her.

The scene abruptly shifts to the small L.A. apartment shared by Howie, a slovenly and abusive con artist, and his girlfriend Charlene, who sells cosmetics at the local Revco. Howie passes Vera's credit card slip from the glove compartment of the rental car to Charlene a business opportunity he occasionally shares with her so she can make something of herself. And make a new self she does: armed with Vera's credit rating, place of employment, address and birth date, Charlene applies for five new credit cards with a combined credit line of $75,000 in Vera's name, some of which she spends on a spur-of-the-moment visit to the local Botox clinic.

Vera, in the meantime, finds her untenured job is soon to be eliminated. On top of that, her relationship with Colin, a computer whiz whom she met online, is becoming a constant free-floating sense of unfulfillment. When she discovers someone has stolen her name and even her e-mail address, Vera is devastated. Caught in a bureaucratic catch-22 between the local police and the national credit bureaus, Vera and Colin plan an online counterattack, leading to an unexpected, face-to-face denouement.

Shute's ingenious narrative is injected with acerbic wit and perceptive characterizations, resulting in a probing look not just at identity theft, but also at the psychological changes undergone by both victim and perpetrator, and their unlikely melding in the end. Deborah Donovan writes from Colorado.

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