All of us are aware that identity theft has become a major crime in the United States as more and more of us use credit cards and passwords on our computers to engage in domestic and international commerce. As the use of the internet, ATM machines and credit cards becomes the typical way to engage in purchases, the number of ways to use your identification information to steal from you increases.
There are limits to the amount a credit card company can hold you liable if your card is stolen and used, but those limits do not necessarily apply to the myriad other ways your identification can be abused to your detriment and cannot make up for the destructive effect on your credit rating and reputation that such abuse can cause. It was computed that the average consumer will spend in excess of thirty hours in time taking corrective action once such identification theft is discovered and for those people in business or international commerce, the results can be catastrophic.
Nor are statutory protections of great use. The problem is the international nature of the crime. A culprit in Russia or the Ukraine, Nigeria or Botswana, Brazil or Malaysia, can engage in crime on your server and the odds of your government achieving effective criminal prosecution is minute. While this may alter as the world adjusts to the new type of commercial activities available, as of now it is up to you to be the best line of defense to protect the vital information about your own account.
This article shall discuss some practical steps one can and should take on a regular basis to achieve effective privacy protection. The California Department of Consumer Affairs has an extensive discussion of the relevant privacy laws that the wise reader will review as well.
The Danger and the Response:
It is an oddity of human nature that the relationship between certain technology and the human mind creates a sense of privacy and isolation that reduces both the common sense and, at times, public courtesy of the typical individual. All of us have seen how various people become extremely aggressive or selfish when driving, as if the car windows somehow insulated one from the same requirements of interaction in public that all of us normally adhere to. People who would not even think of squeezing into the front of the line in a bank or supermarket, cheerfully and self-righteously edge into the long line of cars in a traffic jam or seize a parking space with gleeful aggressiveness.
In terms of the computer screen, a feeling of unjustified privacy seems to overcome many. E mails have long been famous for the unbridled exchange of information which not having a personal face to face encounter seems to allow and people watch content on the “privacy” of their screen that many would not consider watching on television or in the movies.
This same odd sense of privacy has led many to cheerfully provide financial information to websites about themselves and their finances that is of great use to thieves and embezzlers. Once one clicks on the mouse and enters the information, it is transmitted into an unknown amount of servers worldwide and immediately beyond the effective protection of any one government. You click the mouse and you may have posted the information in a manner far, far more public than if you had rented a billboard to broadcast the data.
A client put it well. “I wouldn’t leave my wallet out on a table in my doctor’s office because who knows who might grab it and my credit cards…but I put what amounted to all my credit cards out on the web and, for all I know, it was known to a million bums all over the world in an instant.”
The use of the internet is too widespread and its convenience too valuable to retreat to the days of check writing and personal transactions for all purchases. What is needed instead is a basic list of intelligent actions and protection devices so that the danger, if not eliminated, is minimized.
Practical Everyday Protections:
KEEPING YOUR FINANCIAL IDENTIFICATION CONFIDENTIAL
- Limit access to your personal information from family and friends. Only those people that need to know should know it and be allowed to use it.
- Before revealing any personal financial or identifying information to a business, find out how they intend to use it, do they share it with others and how it will be kept confidential. Whenever possible, limit what you give them.
- Never give out personal information on the phone or though the mail or internet unless YOU initiated the contact or know the person.
- Avoid using your Social Security number to identify yourself in records or a business’ record. That number is the key to your identify for all governmental and many private purposes and, more than any other number, should be kept confidential. If possible, ask businesses to assign you a different identification number than your SS number for their purposes.
- Instruct your post office not to process address change requests unless you personally deliver the request. Ask your mailman how to do that.
- If you receive an e-mail request that appears to be from your Internet Service Provider stating that your account information needs to be updated or that your credit card information appears to have expired to keep your account active, do not respond without YOU contacting them to confirm that this message is truly from them.
- Destroy credit card solicitations that you get and decide not to use as well as any convenience checks they may be sending to you.
- Each month, every month check your credit card billing statements for each charge…and each credit. If your credit card or creditor bills do not arrive on time, call them to determine if the bills were sent out. (Stealing such bills from your mailbox is a typical ploy.) Make sure your mailbox is locked at all times and never allow others access to your mail awaiting your pickup. Keep a calendar of what bills normally come in when and if any bill is more than three days late, make that call.
- Do keep your own checkbook records up to date and use the statements delivered to you from the bank or available on line to confirm that your records and the banks match completely.
- Change your identification password for access to accounts and information about accounts no less often than annually and keep your list of such access passwords in a secure location at all times.
PASSWORDS: USE THEM WISELY.
- Do not be “cute” with passwords. Felons are well aware that people use variations of family names, birthdays, etc. to create passwords easy to remember. The best password is not necessarily the easiest one for you to remember.
- Think about selecting random passwords that no one could possibly compute by knowing your family or personal information. While numbers are best, an excellent alternative technique is to open a book at random and chose the tenth word on the page followed by the page number.
- Other ideas for impossible to anticipate passwords: make the password out of the first letter of a list of several words; turn words into numbers and special characters; blend the letters of two or more words into one password; use only numbers for your passwords and chose the numbers entirely at random by throwing dice six or eight times in a row.
- Change passwords at least annually and quarterly is better. Remember that each time you provide information such as passwords or account numbers to a third party, you have breached security and it is only a matter of time until that password is known to someone you do not wish to know the password.
- Do not rely on passwords for truly critical information. There are programs available that can break any password. The best way to protect information is to load it onto a disc and remove it from the computer.
- Remember there are two areas of concern: your own computer and your computer linked into the internet. The latter opens access to your computer to the world; the former only has concern about people on your local area network or with physical access to your computer.
- The easier it is for you to use your password, the easier it is for someone else to break it. It may take ten minutes to memorize a random password while your birthday will never be forgotten by you-but that ten minutes is the difference between a password that is illusion and one that actually gives a little protection.
LEARN THE LAW TO PROTECT YOUR PRIVACY…AND USE IT.
- Have your name, address and phone number removed from many marketing list by contacting the Direct Marketing Association. This will help but not fully solve the problem since membership is voluntary. Contact www.the-dma.org.
- Have your name removed from credit reporting agency lists to receive pre approved credit offers or marketing offers by calling toll free 888-567-8688.
- If you discover you are a victim of identify theft, you can immediately freeze your credit by instituting a SECURITY FREEZE. This is provided by California law and by checking with the California Department of Consumer Affairs one can determine how to enforce it.
- Only use one credit card when buying on line. This allows close tracking of all purchases and if your security is breached, limits the damage. It is also a good idea to use a card with a low credit limit and to only use that card for online purchases.
- Use the various state and federal agencies to report violations of your privacy. The Federal Trade Commission and the California Department of Consumer Affairs are excellent resources with very good websites.
THEY WILL STEAL FROM YOU: PREPARE FOR IT
- Just as sooner or later the average car in the United States suffers a break in or is stolen, so you must anticipate that sooner or later your identity will be used to your loss. Just as you lock your car, carry car insurance, and still know you will suffer some loss, so you must take these precautions knowing that they cannot provide complete protection.
- You would not leave your valuable automobile in a bad neighborhood. Do not use your most valuable credit information or card in a questionable transaction.
- Have a low limit card you use for most purchases and keep your highest limit card for transactions that are face to face.
- Keep track of what your card is doing. As one of our clients stated, “It’s midnight. Do you know where your card is?” In terms of the internet, the only way you will know is by keeping track of your billing statement.
- Never share cards with others. Even if they are honest, their use of the card may not mirror the care you are taking and children are notorious for using cards on line without taking any care about the information placed on the net.
- And remember the net is now used for far more than credit card transactions. From travel to listing of homes, from chat rooms to bank inquiries, one faces requests for information suddenly appearing on the screen. Careful. It is almost always better to avoid use of the internet for any substantial transaction.
Anonymity is the advantage and bane of the new plethora of commercial transactions on the web.
The new crime derives directly from that and such crime will drastically increase over the coming decade. In a very real way, your economic health depends on you mastering the skill to protect your own credit and financial identity from the new breed of thieves who are relying on your lack of foresight to obtain access to the credit you have spent decades perfecting.
This is not a new challenge historically speaking. When the average person first gained access to a checking account rather than cash in the late nineteenth century it was necessary to learn the skill of protecting the checkbook, the signature, and access to same as well as keeping a record of each check signed. Now, a century and a half later, a similar increase in access to financial convenience requires the same adjustment in technique and security precautions. If mastered, the web can provide remarkable convenience. If ignored, one can expect to suffer significant financial loss and inconvenience. The reader is invited to read our article on Credit Report Problems if you are already too late!