Not long ago, Amerigo "Pete" Pietropaoli of Alexandria accompanied a lady friend to the UPS office on Eisenhower Avenue to ship a package off to Florida. They didn't see anyone behind the counter, but since everything is automated these days, they stepped up to a self-serve machine and started keying in the information that it asked of them: where the package was going, a local telephone number, that sort of thing.

Then it asked for the shipper's mother's maiden name.

"I says, 'Jenny, that is nobody's business,' " said Pete. When a UPS employee materialized, Pete took the package over to him, thinking that with a human involved perhaps that personal question could be sidestepped.

Nope. The UPS guy said he needed the mother's maiden name.

Pete couldn't understand what one thing had to do with the other, that is what the desire to send some items to the Sunshine State had to do with learning what Pete's mother called herself before she met Pete's father.

"Why do they need all that just to mail a package?" Pete said. "It infuriated me."

Pete thought perhaps this was a security measure, an artifact of our post-9/11 world. Does asking for a mother's maiden name in some way thwart an evildoer intent on using UPS to send a jam jar full of gelignite?

Said Pete: "If they had said, 'Look, for security reasons we need to establish this or that,' I could understand it. But none of that was ever mentioned. . . . I said no way am I going to give that information out."

And the reason he wasn't going to give that out is that many of us think of our mother's maiden name as a sort of skeleton key to all our personal information. It's not something to be bandied about lightly.

So what gives? You will not be surprised to hear that UPS spokesman Steve Holmes said that requesting the mother's maiden name is for the convenience of the customer. He explained:

UPS's computer remembers everything you tell it. If you ship a lot of things to multiple addresses, you don't want to have to key in that information every time you wrap a package. You can just call the info up on the self-serve machines or online. The information is protected by a password. And in case you forget the password, they ask for your mother's maiden name.

"The objective is not to obtain information but to protect the information that they've put in," said Steve. He said that none of the information is used for marketing and that the data are safe.

Well he would, wouldn't he? No offense, but if computer hard drives can go walking out of Los Alamos, it's doubtful whether Big Brown can be 100 percent certain that its customers' information is secure.

Eric Gertler, author of "Prying Eyes: Protect Your Privacy From People Who Sell to You, Snoop on You and Steal From You," said the episode illustrates "the tension going on right now between companies that want to set up more efficient systems and still have greater security [and individuals who realize], 'My gosh, I am forced to give out all this information all the time.' "

With identity theft on the rise, customers are being asked more and more questions to help businesses ascertain if we're really who we say we are. Your credit card or Internet service provider might ask you what city you were born in, what your first dog's name was, what your favorite sport is. . . .

(They seem not to be asking what your dog's favorite sport is. It all reminds me of when my father flew jets in Vietnam and the stakes were a bit higher. When helicopter rescue crews received a crackly SOS over their radios, they would ask the person claiming to be a downed U.S. pilot a set of questions -- his favorite baseball player, his favorite mixed drink -- lest they be lured into an ambush.)

Eric recommended four things to help guard against identity theft:

Think before telling. Be careful about disclosing information such as your mother's maiden name or Social Security number unless you're very comfortable with the company or have done business with it.

Decide how much information you really need to carry. Do you really need to carry around sensitive information all the time? It might be wiser to leave some of it at home until you need it.

Keep an emergency file at home. This should include instructions on how to immediately cancel anything that might have been lost or stolen.

Check your credit regularly. Eric recommends getting your credit report every year from each of the three major credit reporting services. Otherwise, you might never learn that someone is racking up debt on a credit card in your name that you never even knew was out there.

And what should Pete have done at UPS? Eric said he could have entered any old name into the system.

"It may ask for mother's maiden name, but by all means use a different password," said Eric. "Just make sure as a consumer you remember that password."

UPS's Steve Holmes suggested the same thing. The computer doesn't care what you put in, just that you're consistent. Computers are like that.

Perhaps if the employee had explained what the maiden name was needed for, Pete might have done that. As it happens, he walked out the door, found a FedEx and shipped the package that way.