Many people in American society do their best to follow the rules, but inadvertently get ground up by computer systems that have been poorly designed—systems that somehow can't quite cope with the messiness of day-to-day life. Just take the case of Steve and Nancy Ross, who did a lot of traveling in the early 1980s and paid for it with a ruined credit report, courtesy of the Internal Revenue Service.
In 1983, Nancy Ross won a fellowship to spend six months in Hawaii, paid for by the Japanese American Institute for Management Sciences. At the time, her husband Steve was a freelance writer and self-employed computer consultant, so the two of them packed up their kids and went off on their Pacific adventure. At the end of the trip, they returned to their home in Leonia, New Jersey.
A few months later, Nancy was invited to spend a year in the Far East and Japan. It was the chance of a lifetime for her kids, so they packed their bags again and left. By this time, Steve had accepted a job at the journalism department of Columbia University, so he stayed behind. To save money, the family rented out their house in New Jersey and Steve moved into a tiny apartment in New York City.
Shortly after Steve and Nancy moved back home, they received a nasty letter from the IRS: a lien had been placed on their house. "I immediately called the IRS in Holtsville [New York] and said essentially, 'What are you talking about?'" recalls Steve Ross. "I reached a good clerk. We were ...