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Bulgaria, which is slightly larger than Tennessee, is located in southeastern Europe, bordering the Black Sea, between Romania and Turkey. Bulgaria joined the European Union on Jan. 1, 2007.

On the identity trail

U student learns about Bulgaria while tracking his stolen identity

by Pauline Oo

Feb. 23, 2007

If someone stole your personal information, would you: A) Report the crime and wait to see what happens? B) Follow the paper trail left by the thieves, even if it leads you to a foreign country?

Most people would answer A. But if you answered A and B, then you probably have a rare adventurous spirit, like Andrew Schroeder. The University of Minnesota graduate student was a victim of identity theft in December 2005, and last year he made a special trip to the Balkans, where he supposedly made about 60 financial transactions within 14 days.

"I came up with the idea of retracing the path of my Visa card [in Macedonia and Bulgaria] a week after my identity had been stolen," says Schroeder, a second-year M.F.A. candidate in visual arts and printmaking. "I was drawn to the danger element, and I was looking for answers: Who are these people? Why did they do this to me?"

To help bring life to his idea, Schroeder applied for the U's 2006 Walter H. Judd International Graduate and Professional Fellowship. In recent years, and as it drives toward its goal of becoming one of the top three public research universities in the world, the University of Minnesota has focused efforts on increasing study abroad opportunities for undergraduate students and offering more fellowships to support graduate student research, artistic endeavors and internships (see "Further reading" at the end of the story). Schroeder was among the 23 Judd fellowship recipients.

Photo trail

To view a selection of Schroeder's photos, see Bulgaria project

"The grant paid for airfare and hotels," says Schroeder. "And I paid for everything in between."

Schroeder, making his first solo trip to Europe, flew to Amsterdam and then Istanbul, where he boarded a train to Bulgaria. Because he couldn't get a permit to enter neighboring Macedonia, Schroeder focused his five-week "research project" on the transactions that occurred on Bulgarian soil. (His first journal entry was May 17, 2006; his last was June 11.)

"Nobody spoke English, and the people could barely read the [Latin] alphabet," recalls Schroeder. "I was armed with bank statements, a journal and two cameras--film and digital--to record my experiences."

His itinerary, formed entirely out of the information that appeared on his bank statements, brought him to a wide array of places--from seedy hotels in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, to beer-serving caf?s in Veliko Turnovo and vendors near the dangerously decaying 1300th Anniversary Monument built by Communists in the capital city of Sofia.

Be safe!

While there are no guarantees to avoiding identity theft, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk and minimize the damage if you become a victim. Read "Don't fall victim to identity theft or phishing."

"I thought I could create a character sketch of the person who stole my identity," explains Schroeder. "But I couldn't. I was at coffee shops, hotels and ATMs in different cities across the country. The transactions were random, as far as I could tell. I even went to the Black Sea coast and stayed in a really luxurious hotel that was filled with 50-year-old Germans and Russians, who were probably wondering what I was doing there. I was clearly the youngest person there."

Because of Bulgaria's lagging technology, the thief (or thieves) had been able to ring up a large number of transactions before Schroeder's bank canceled his card.

"I think the Mafia stole my identity," says Schroeder, who had learned while traipsing the country that the mafia is entrenched in Bulgarian life. (Bulgarian Mafia organizations have made headlines as significant players in arms trafficking and the narcotics network through Bulgaria and the Balkan states of Albania and Macedonia and Western Europe.)

Schroeder took about 300 photographs during his sojourn in Bulgaria. Since his return, the Nebraska native has been trying to condense the photos down to "the most interesting or varied transactions." Three of his large-scale photos, along with descriptive captions, were featured in the recent exhibit "Narrative Beyond Words," a collection of M.F.A. student works displayed throughout Wilson Library on the Twin Cities campus in Minneapolis.

Andrew Schroeder
Andrew Schroeder

"There was a moment when I came back and I thought, 'Now what?'" says Schroeder. "The project is evolving. I have a great deal in terms of photos and text, and I've made progress turning each transaction into small artist books or self-published 'zines.' But I don't really know [what the end result will be]--if this project should be a documentary, a book form or something on the Web."

Neither Schroeder nor the police have figured out who stole his identity. But no matter, says the animated and optimistic Schroeder. He got a valuable lesson in geography, if not in the fragility of personal information in an increasingly digital world.

"[The trip] had the potential to be a real disaster--I was traveling alone, I didn't know anyone and I could have been mugged or killed [by a suspicious member of the mob]--but it was a great trip," says Schroeder, "because I got to immerse myself in a culture that I was oblivious to." (Although a vegetarian, Schroeder tried pork neck, "all in the spirit of doing what they did and eating what they ate.")

"Bulgaria is an interesting place for travel because so few Americans go there," he adds. "I'd like to go back because there are a few things I'd like to follow up on. [For example,] I met a lot of British people buying homes there, and I am curious about how these two pockets of Europe intersect in this one country."

Further Reading Global imperative Did You Know?: Global learning opportunities for every student Africa calling One size does not fit all