STAYING SAFE - Protect Your IDENTITY and your CREDIT

I know there are dozens of sites out there that tell you how to keep yourself safe online, how to protect your IDENTITY -- meaning how to keep it from getting stolen, and how to protect your CREDIT -- meaning how to keep the slimeballs from destroying your credit.

I'm writing this article to give you the BASICS - to give even novices a summary of what to do and what not to do to keep yourself SAFE, both on the computer, and in the "real world." 

In this article, I'll give you some rules to live by (highlighted in RED below), with enough explanation that even people who aren't computer-savvy can understand, and I'll give you some reading and download links for more learning.

YOU ARE VULNERABLE!

In today's world, more than ever, people are out to steal things. If you don't take active measures to protect yourself, then they will steal from you as soon as they find you.

If they can steal your identity, they will do such things as take out new credit cards in your name, get a driver's license, have your mail forwarded to somewhere else, and commit all sorts of atrocities while pretending to be you. 

If they can get your credit information, they will run up as many charges as they can get away with.

Fortunately, most credit card companies and credit reporting agencies are very aware of the problem, and it's now easier than ever to fix things if this happens -- BUT IT'S STILL A MAJOR HASSLE!

Here's an example. A couple of years ago, I was traveling and stopped for lunch at Ruby Tuesday's just northeast of Gadsden, Alabama. We were three people for a meal, and I put it on my Visa card. A month later, I was checking my credit card bill, and I saw a charge from Ruby Tuesday's for $26.49 at 11:35 AM, and on the next line was ANOTHER charge for $29.83 at 11:36 AM from the same place! 

It was obvious what had happened. The server had either erroneously used my card on another patron's bill, or perhaps had treated some of her friends to lunch at my expense! 

I tried to call Ruby Tuesday's but could never get through to a manager. So I called Visa to have the second billing taken off. They said I would have to dispute the charge and WRITE THEM A LETTER! Who writes paper letters any more? So I did, and Ruby Tuesday's disputed my dispute, saying the charge was valid. Obviously, the Visa people did not give them the whole story, that there were TWO charges, one minute apart. Visa told me the only way they would be able to take that charge off my bill was that I had to have that card invalidated and they'd have to issue me an entirely new card.

See what I mean about a hassle? And this was for less than $30!

RULES TO LIVE BY!

1. PROTECT YOUR COMPUTER. There are several things you need to do to keep your computer safe from unwanted intrusion. Here they are in short form:

a.  Keep Your Browser Current. If you use Microsoft Internet Explorer (85% of everyone does), go to TOOLS / Windows Update and follow the instructions. You should do this in MSIE even if you don't regularly use it, because it will also update other critical aspects of Windows. For Firefox, Opera, or other browsers, see their website where you got the program.

You should do this at LEAST monthly or more often.

b. Install and use ANTI-VIRUS software, and keep the definitions current! Viruses and their kin get inside your computer and do bad things, like erase files or send out hundreds of emails from your account.

Both Norton Antivirus and McAfee are excellent products, and there are also free products available. You can read about one of them here, and another perhaps better one here.

If you watch the Sunday office specialty store ads, you can frequently see a deal where you can get the commercial antivirus product for free after rebate.

You only need ONE antivirus program.

NEVER turn off your antivirus, unless you are not connected to the internet, and then only for a short time.

Finally, it's been said that over 200 new viruses are created every week. So you need to update your virus definitions regularly. If you get a commercial program, this will be handled automatically.

c. Install and use ANTISPYWARE. Spyware is software that hides on your computer and does things you don't want, like report what you do back to someone's website. It can even steal your bank account information and password, and send it to someone else! You don't want that!

You can read about some good ones - some that cost and some that are free, on Kim Komando's website.

Personally, I run two free antispyware programs: AdAware SE Personal from Lavasoft, and Spybot Search and Destroy from PCTools. 

If your antispyware doesn't automatically run ever week, then you should do this yourself, EVERY WEEK.

You don't want spyware on your computer!

d. Install and run a FIREWALL. This is a program that runs on your computer that acts as a gatekeeper for internet traffic. It will alert you if someone from the outside is trying to get into your computer, or if some program inside your computer is trying to get onto the internet. 

You can set it up so that programs you know don't have to ask every time, so only new things pop up the alert. They pop up an alert box that says something like "Doobop is trying to access the internet. Do you want to allow this?" And of course, if you don't recognize Doobop, you say NO! 

My favorite free firewall is Zone Alarm by Zone Labs.

You should run your firewall ALL THE TIME.

e. Use a ROUTER. A router is a piece of hardware that sits between your computer and your modem. The internet connection you use should be Wire -- Modem -- Router -- Computer. 

What a router does is it hides your computer from the internet. Your computer has a unique address, known as its IP (internet protocol) address. The router masks this IP address and instead sends out its own (different) address to queries from the internet.

Routers usually come with mutiple ports, so you can hook up several computers to one internet connection. But even if you have only one computer, I strongly advise you to use a router anyway. 


NOTHING can keep you 100% safe, especially against a determined  attacker. But if you use the steps I've outlined above, you will be safer than 99.99% if you don't.

Guaranteed.

2. PROTECT YOUR CREDIT.  There are four areas you need to stay aware of. Remain alert in these areas, and you will be much safer. These areas are online, the telephone, paper mail, and your credit and bank statements.

There's an EXCELLENT article on protecting your identity as reflected in the contents of your wallet on the Snopes.com website here.

a.  Protect Your Credit Online.  There are two aspects to protecting your credit online -- in emails and on websites.

EMAIL: A few strong rules here.

NEVER GIVE OUT CREDIT CARD or PASSWORD INFORMATION IN AN EMAIL! Also, never put ANY sensitive info in an email. Email by its very nature is not secure. Without going into the technical details, let's just say that any computer-savvy slimeball has the ability to read any or all of your emails, so be warned.

NEVER CLICK ON A LINK IN AN EMAIL! It doesn't matter whether the email is innocent or personal, or whether it seems like it comes from someone you know. Clicking on a link in an email COULD take you to a malicious website that will plant spyware on your computer and do all sorts of other nasty things. So just DON'T DO IT!  

If you really, REALLY want to see what's at the link in an email, then open up a new browser window, and type in the address yourself.

Here's a demonstration. The link below LOOKS like it's going to take you to the Bank Of America website. But it won't. Go ahead, click it, it's not dangerous, but it does demonstrate how links can fool you. 

www.bankofamerica.com

See what I mean?

NEVER, EVER ANSWER SPAM! The only reason we keep getting these stupid things is that SOMEONE answers them, and they make money from it. If no one ever answered spam, then they'd quit sending them.  

If you're interested in a product, then go look it up on the internet. Google.com is excellent for this, as is eBay.com.

Also, I've heard that at least 30% of spam messages contain some kind of malware -- spyware, virus, trojan horses, all that kind of stuff you don't want to get on your computer. 

If you'd like an EXCELLENT tutorial on this issue, check out Randy Cassingham's Spam Primer.

b.  Protect Your Credit On The Phone. The basic rule on the telephone is this: 

NEVER GIVE OUT ANY INFORMATION TO SOMEONE WHO CALLS YOU! You can never tell who it is that's calling you. It's really easy to spoof caller ID, so don't count on that. 

If someone calls you claiming to be your bank or your insurance company, that's fine. But don't GIVE THEM any information. They should already have it. 

If they insist, then get their number and offer to call them back. But don't call the number they gave you. Call the 800 number on the back of the credit card, or call the number you have for your insurance company. 

Here's a TRUE INCIDENT about what can happen if you give out information. People have been getting calls from someone CLAIMING to be an investigator for Visa or Mastercard, and they have your credit card number! This is what makes you think they are legitimate. They want you to confirm your account by giving them the security code on the back of the card. DON"T DO IT! Read the RULE above! They are scammers, and they need the security code to steal from your account. Read the whole story on Snopes here.

c.  Protect Your Credit In Regular Mail.

I have seen no less than a dozen "Business Reply Cards" for various things being sold through the mail -- it's just a post card where you put all your purchase information right on the postpaid card and stick it in the mail.

HELLO? What's to stop ANYONE from reading your credit card information off of the reply card? 

If you want to use one of these cards, select the "Bill me later" option or else put it all inside an envelope and seal it! 

If you're like me you get about twenty million preapproved credit card offers every week. If you don't answer them, then destroy them. Shred them if possible, or tear them up. You don't want anyone else finding them and submitting them in your name. 

NEVER EXPOSE YOUR CREDIT INFO ON A POST CARD.
SHRED ALL FINANCIAL OR CREDIT DOCUMENTS.

d.  Protect Your Credit by Auditing Statements. About the best thing you can do to make sure you haven't been had is to regularly go over your credit card and bank statements when they come in and verify that everything on there is something you recognize. 

AUDIT YOUR BANK AND CREDIT STATEMENTS REGULARLY.

If you find something you don't recognize, investigate it, and if it's wrong, then immediately get in touch with the bank or credit card company. 


It's not easy or convenient to keep your identity and your credit safe, but it's essential. 

Just remember, the slimeballs out there are active and energetic in their attempts to steal what's yours. You need to be equally active and energetic in your efforts to prevent them from doing so. 

Here's a summary of the rules of keeping your identity and credit safe:

ON YOUR COMPUTER:

Keep your browswer up to date.
Install and use Antivirus software.
Keep your Antivirus definitions current.
Install and use Antispyware software.
Install and use a Firewall.
Use a router.
Never give out credit information in an email.
Never give out passwords in an email.
Never click on a LINK in an email.
Never answer (or open) spam.

IN YOUR LIFE:

Never give out ANY information to someone who calls you. (Okay if you call them.)
Never expose credit card information on a post card.
Shred all financial documents and credit card applications.
Audit your bank and credit statements regularly.

I hope this helps you keep yourself safe.