Even after escaping a lifetime of abuse in Guatemala and eighteen months living in a Laredo, Texas homeless shelter, Regina Lopez still looked radiant and maintained a quiet inner dignity with her shoulder length black hair and disarming smile. She wiped her daughter’s face with the cleanest washcloth she could find. The shelter staff tried to provide clean towels, washcloths, soap, and hot meals, but it was a struggle because there were always too many people and not enough supplies to go around. They were decent and caring, but Regina felt an underlying tension because they were overwhelmed. Her new country was not as rich as the mules promised.

The shelter filled up every night; every morning, men from the INS took many new arrivals four blocks south and three blocks west to the Convent Avenue Port of Entry and dropped them on the Mexican side of the border. But not Regina and her daughter. Juanita was an American citizen and the INS could never send either of them away. It was a miracle.

The United States really was the land of opportunity, although as far as Regina could tell, the streets—at least those that she could see near the Hidalgo Shelter—were paved with dusty, clay bricks and asphalt, not gold. Barely literate in Spanish, her challenges as a homeless single mother in a new country were daunting. But with help from many people, she made remarkable progress and by now she could speak rudimentary English and read at a fourth-grade level.

And it was time for another miracle because the maximum time anyone could stay at the shelter was eighteen months. But Regina was prepared and the shelter staff worked with her on a plan. As the mother of an American citizen, she was entitled to a cash-assistance card to help with food and clothing for the baby. The shelter staff taught Regina how to set money aside to accumulate enough for a deposit on an apartment; by now she had enough to cover the deposit on a moderate apartment, plus a little extra.

The next miracle was finding a way to generate enough income to pay rent every month. The cash-assistance card was not enough. And that led to today, Monday, when she was scheduled to meet with the managers at the Rial Laredo Hotel at 9:00 a.m. sharp about a new job cleaning rooms. It was a big day and the shelter staff had hovered over Regina all Sunday and early Monday morning, fixing her hair, applying makeup, grilling her with practice interview questions and evaluating her answers. Finally, she was ready.

The five-block walk went quickly and the interview was flawless. The manager offered her the job on the spot. Her first day would be next Monday, one week away.

Regina was ecstatic. “Oh Lord, thank you for your generosity. Thank you for life in this wonderful country. We are blessed beyond measure with your kindness.”

Back at the shelter, Regina reported her good news. Amid all the poverty and heartbreak from across the border, this was sweet victory and time to celebrate. They needed a reminder of this wonderful day, so they drove to the nearest Bullseye, where Regina bought Juanita a special Christmas gift. It was a snow globe, showing a castle surrounded by a winter landscape. No matter how cloudy and snowy, the castle representing her new country would always be strong. The clouds would always part as the snow stopped falling, and the day would turn out clear and bright. It was a beautiful symbol and Regina could not think of a better way to celebrate with her new American friends.

Regina’s friends offered to pay, but Regina insisted on paying the $13.99 herself. Regina knew the money attached to her cash-assistance Visa debit card was a grant from the government, but using the card gave her a feeling of independence. This was a special occasion and a new beginning—her first purchase beyond basic food and clothing in her new country. Besides, the card had plenty of money to make the upcoming apartment deposit and first month’s rent, with a little bit left over for emergencies. With her new job, soon she would not need this card anymore. She would pay back her new American friends who helped her and would remain friends forever.

After buying the gift, Regina and her friends splurged at a nearby McFrank’s. They were overjoyed when Juanita ate nearly all of her hamburger. Juanita allowed her mom to share the French fries and lemonade, and the whole group shared a toast with soft drinks. Everyone had a wonderful time. Regina was on her way to self-sufficiency and this would be a success story for the shelter.

By the time the group returned to the shelter Monday night, a copy of Regina’s debit-card number was already in a database on a server in St. Petersburg, Russia. Later that night, a counterfeiter with a shop below a Laundromat in San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood bought the card number from an underground website and printed a forged Visa card embossed with Regina’s name and credit-card number. On Thursday, an anonymous thief in San Antonio used the card to buy a laptop computer and gaming software for $726.53, leaving a balance on the card of $3.47.

On Friday morning, Regina met with the landlord to finalize the details. She would move in over the weekend and start work on Monday. The apartment was within walking distance from both the Rial Laredo and the shelter. Friends on the shelter staff agreed to watch Juanita during the day while Regina worked, which meant Regina could see her over her lunch break. This stretched the shelter rules, but the shelter managers okayed the arrangement because this would be the success story the shelter needed to continue receiving grants. If anyone deserved a break, it was Regina, the model client.

“Just one more detail to take care of,” said the landlord. “I need to run your card.”

Regina handed her Visa card to the landlord. He swiped it through the credit-card machine.

“Please wait… Declined. Insufficient funds,” it read.

“Um, Regina, there seems to be a problem. I thought you said you had plenty of money on this card.”

“I do. What is wrong?”

“Well, the machine here says you don’t.”

“What means ‘insufficient funds’?”

“It means you don’t have enough money on the card to cover your deposit and first month’s rent.”

“How can this be? I save my money. Statements in the mail say I have enough money.”

“I don’t know what to tell you. This machine says you don’t have enough.”

“Then machine is wrong. Here—phone number on the back of card. We call.”

The landlord grudgingly handed Regina his cell phone. “They always have plenty of money until it’s time to pay up,” he thought. “Why do I keep letting that shelter con me?”

Regina’s hands shook as she dialed the phone. She had almost $800. How could she not have enough money?

“Press 1 for English, presione 2 para español,” said the interactive voice system that answered the phone.

She pressed 1.

“Please enter your sixteen-digit account number followed by the pound sign.”

“What is pound sign?” asked Regina. The landlord showed her the “#” button on the phone. Regina started pressing digits, but made a mistake.

“I’m sorry, but you have entered an incorrect account number. Please re-enter your sixteen-digit account number, followed by the pound sign.”

Regina carefully entered her account number, but the system timed out before she could finish. As she was about to enter the thirteenth digit, the automated voice said, “Thank you for calling EBT payments. Good-bye.”

The landlord pressed the “Speaker” button on the cell phone and helped Regina dial the number again. This time, they made it past the account number entry.

“Please enter the last four digits of your Social Security number,” said the voice. Regina found her new Social Security card—the staff at the shelter told her not to lose this—and pressed the digits on the phone.

“Press 1 for balance lookup. Press 2 for recent transactions. Press 3 to report a lost or stolen card. Press 9 for an operator,” said the voice.

Regina pressed 1.

“Your balance,” said the voice, now becoming monotone, “is three dollars and forty-seven cents.”

“How can this be?” asked Regina.

“I’m sorry, but I do not recognize that command,” said the voice.

“I have almost $800!” said Regina. “I save every month since Juanita born!”

“I’m sorry, but I do not recognize that command,” said the voice. “Press 1 for balance inquiry. Press 2 for recent transactions. Press 3 to report a lost or stolen card. Press 9 for an operator.”

The landlord said, “Try pressing 2.”

Regina pressed 2, and the voice said, “Here are your transactions from the past seven days. On Thursday, December 5, you purchased a computer from Great Buy Company in San Antonio, Texas. On Thursday, December 5, you purchased software from Great Buy Company in San Antonio, Texas. On Thursday December 5, you purchased software from Great Buy Company in San Antonio, Texas. On Thursday, December 5, you purchased software from Great Buy Company in San Antonio, Texas. On Thursday, December 5, you purchased software from Great Buy Company in San Antonio, Texas. On Monday, December 2, you purchased a household item from Bullseye Stores in Laredo, Texas.”

“I did not buy those things in San Antonio!” cried Regina, now nearly hysterical.

“I’m sorry, but I do not recognize that command,” said the voice. “Press 1 for balance inquiry. Press 2 for recent transactions. Press 3 to report a lost or stolen card. Press 9 for an operator.”

“My card right here. It not lost or stolen!” said Regina. “I not buy these things!”

“I’m sorry, but I do not recognize that command,” said the voice. “Press 1 for balance inquiry. Press 2 for recent transactions. Press 3 to report a lost or stolen card. Press 9 for an operator.”

The landlord said, “Let’s get somebody to talk to us,” as he gently took the phone from Regina. He pressed 9.

“Transferring to an operator. Please wait while we handle an unusually large call volume today,” said the voice. A 1970s-era easy-listening rock song started playing.

Regina and the landlord listened to easy-listening rock songs for the next forty minutes as they waited on hold. Suddenly the music stopped and they heard the sound of a ringing phone. After six rings, the connection dropped as the automated phone system on the other end of a toll-free phone number hung up.

The landlord looked at his phone, swore under his breath, and said, “Wait a minute. The battery’s almost dead. Let me get a charger.”

Fifteen minutes later, with the phone now connected to a battery charger, they tried the call again. This time the landlord pressed 9 immediately after entering Regina’s account number and other required numbers. Regina sobbed as they waited another forty-five minutes listening to cheerful songs from the Captain & Tennille. But this time, somebody answered when the phone rang.

“Hello, my name’s Belinda, how may I help you?” said a cheerful voice with a slight southern accent.

“Hi. I’m with Regina Lopez here and we seem to have a problem with her Visa card.”

“Okay. What’s the account number, please?”

“Didn’t we enter that on the phone about an hour ago?” said the landlord.

“You probably did, but I need it now,” said Belinda.

Regina read her the account number and the last four digits of her Social Security number. She had to do it three times because static in the call and Regina’s accent made understanding more difficult.

“I see your last few transactions,” said Belinda. “Looks like you bought a computer and some software.”

“Yes, in San Antonio,” said the landlord.

“But I have never been there,” said Regina. “I’m in Laredo, Texas, in the United States.”

“I see,” said Belinda. “Perhaps you ordered these over the phone or over the Internet? The stores might not show up in the same city where you live.”

“I did not buy these things!” said Regina, emotion rising in her voice. “I need this money for my apartment. I did not buy these things!”

“Perhaps you loaned your card to somebody?” said Belinda.

“I keep my card with me in my purse all the time,” said Regina, “just as they teach me. I save money for this day to move into an apartment. I buy present for my baby, Juanita, on Monday. I not buy nothing in San Antonio!”

“Our records indicate you bought a computer and some software from a Great Buy store in San Antonio last night. But you’re saying you did not buy those things?” said Belinda.

“That’s right,” said Regina. “I buy Christmas present for Juanita, my daughter on Monday. I not use card other than that. Your record’s wrong!”

“We can investigate this further. We should also cancel this card and issue you another one. It should arrive in the mail in about a week,” said Belinda.

“Thank you, but can I pay landlord with new card now? I’m supposed to move in over this weekend and I have nowhere else to live and no other money.”

“Ms. Lopez, I’m truly sorry, but the new card will have the same $3.47 balance as the old card. We cannot add more money to the card balance.”

“But I did not spend that money!”

“I understand, but I cannot replace the money that was taken from the card. Perhaps you should call law enforcement and report this. Maybe they can recover some of it for you.”

The call ended a few minutes later with Regina in tears. And then it got worse.

“Regina, I’m sorry, but I can’t rent to you if you don’t have the money to pay,” said the landlord. “I have at least a dozen people waiting for this apartment who can move in tomorrow. I put you at the front of the line because they asked me for a favor at the shelter, but if you don’t have the money, I need to let somebody else have it.”

“But where will my daughter and I live?” cried Regina.

“I don’t know what to tell you. But if I were you, I’d call the police.”

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