An Ounce of Prevention Can Protect Your Identity

An Ounce of Prevention Can Protect Your Identity

Your personal information is important to you.  Or is it?  It should be and you should want to protect it.  But what exactly should you want to protect and what are you protecting it from?  And how do you protect it?  Do you really need to worry about it?  And if so, can’t you just pay a service to do it for you?

Lots of questions and even more answers.  Like noses, everybody’s got an answer…or at least an opinion…and, yes, they all smell!  But some smell better than others.  Get a whiff of these tips…

Your personally identifiable information (PII) can include many things, such as bank account numbers, passwords, credit card numbers, security codes, driver’s license or state-issued ID numbers, date of birth (DOB), addresses, phone numbers, Social Security numbers, and more.  When someone gets their hands on one or more pieces of your PII, it can potentially be used in many ways; most of them are not good.  Cyber criminals can use your information to make purchases on your credit/debit card and withdrawal or transfer funds from your bank account without your knowledge or permission.  They can also assume your identity for the purpose of opening new accounts, obtaining credit or services, or applying for loans – all under your good name!

Many services are available to monitor your information and accounts.  But these services typically alert you after the suspicious activity has occurred on one or more of your accounts.  That could be a day late and a dollar short.   (Maybe several dollars!)  Think of it this way…would you rather prevent the leak in your roof from occurring in the first place, thus, saving you the headache of cleaning up the mess at all?  Or, would you rather wait until the leak happens, making a mess and causing water damage, before you take action?  Waiting too long means a lot more damage and work for you because then you not only have to fix the leaky roof anyway but you have to clean up the mess, too!  It’s the same idea with the maintenance and protection of your valuable information.  An ounce of prevention could save you a lot of headaches down the road.

Try following these guidelines:

  • Do not carry your Social Security card with you and do not give out your Social Security number. Legitimate businesses and vendors recognize the vulnerability created for customers when they are asked to provide their SSN.  Consequently, most don’t ask for it.  And even if they ask, it doesn’t mean you’re obligated to provide it.
  • Do not carry your PIN or passwords in your wallet and choose a PIN number that’s not obvious like consecutive numbers or your birthday.
  • Regularly review your bank statements, credit card invoices, and bills every month.
  • Monitor your credit reports at least once per year.  You’re entitled to a free copy of your credit report once every twelve months from each of the three credit reporting bureaus (Equifax / Experian / TransUnion).  By requesting your report from one of the bureaus every four months, you can obtain three separate reports over the course of a year.
  • Shred your documents before you throw them in the trash or recycle bin.  Bills, bank statements, credit card statements, cash machine receipts, medical benefits statements, credit card and loan offers, and old credit cards can provide someone digging through your trash with a wealth of information.  Don’t give them that chance.
  • Don’t leave credit, debit, ATM card, or gas station receipts behind at terminals or machines.  Shred them like other personal documents.
  • If you’re not making your bill payments electronically or online, mail them at the post office or use a blue USPS mailbox.  Don’t put your paid bills in your mailbox for pickup.  Identity thieves make a living stealing mail with all that sensitive data.  The amount of damage an ID thief can do with just a signed personal check is limitless.
  • Be suspicious and a little bit paranoid.  Always question when someone asks you for any piece of personal information.  Give out your information sparingly.  Provide as little information as necessary and be very hesitant to give any information to someone who contacts you (vs. someone you have contacted for a specific purpose).  Never give any information to someone calling you on the phone, even if the caller says it will be used to claim a prize or award.
  • Don’t respond to phishing scams, which are fake emails and web sites that appear to be from authentic businesses.  These fakes are trying to get you to provide personal account numbers, logins, and/or passwords.  Legitimate businesses don’t ask you to update your personal information through an email.
  • Don’t click on, open, or download files received in emails or instant messages from anyone, unless you were expecting it and have verified that the file, picture, attachment or website is valid and safe.  Even if the message appears to be from friends, family members, or others with whom you are familiar, be sure to verify with the sender that they really did send it to you and that they are familiar with its contents.  A picture, attachment, or website may contain malicious content.
  • Ignore and delete emails that ask you to forward something on to your friends or contacts and don’t provide any personal information in response to chain emails.
  • Take care not to install programs unwittingly.  Often, software that is free to download online may actually be malware or an infection.  Also, beware of other programs that are bundled with the software you’re intending to download.  Read all user agreements and pay attention to boxes that are checked by default to install an unwanted program.
  • Create and use secure passwords for all accounts online.  Even though it may seem like a hassle, sophisticated software now makes it extremely easy and quick for cyber criminals to crack your passwords if they are less than twelve characters long.  Be creative and make up your own words and use special characters, if allowed.
  • Make sure you know the correct website address you wish to visit and verify it is legitimate before providing any personal information.  Be diligent about ensuring that you are really visiting the website you think you’re visiting, even if it’s one you think you frequent often.  Fake websites are remarkably good at imitating the look and feel of the real thing.
  • Be careful of any advertisements you may click on when visiting a website or that are contained within an email message you’ve received.  They, too, may contain viruses or malware.
  • Always use a firewall on your PC or laptop.  A firewall provides a security barrier between the Internet and your computer, monitoring your connection for suspicious activity and blocking hackers from accessing your machine.
  • Make sure your wireless network (Wi-Fi) is secure.  Lock down your home’s wireless network by using the security features of your wireless router. If you use a Wi-Fi connection away from home, be sure it is secure, or at the very least, avoid sending or receiving personal information over a public connection.
  • Install and always use security software (firewall, antivirus, anti-spyware software) and keep it up-to-date as a safety measure against online intrusions.
  • Always use security software and make sure it includes antivirus, anti- malware, a firewall, an email spam filter, a popup blocker, and protection against identity theft.  Keep the software up-to-date to stay safe and secure against online intrusions.
  • Use an updated Web browser to make sure you’re taking advantage of its current safety features.
  • Don’t share too much personal information online through social networking sites.  Remember, it’s the Internet and once it’s out there, it’s out there to stay.
  • Be sure to destroy all of the digital data on your hard drive when you sell, trade or get rid of an old computer.  The same goes for other storage media like thumb drives, DVD’s, CD’s, etc.  Make sure the data is completely erased and destroyed.  Besides deleting the data and reformatting the hard drive, use a product like Microsoft-backed SDelete to ensure all data is completely wiped beyond recovery from the hard drive.  Completely destroy DVD’s or CD’s by shredding them or cutting them up with scissors.
  • Be aware of the latest scams and use caution to combat fraud.  Share what you learn with your friends and family.

Following these simple preventative measures can save you big headaches down the line.  It could be worth a pound of cure!

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Don’t Take the Bait! Avoid “Phishing” Lures to Protect Your Identity

Don’t Take the Bait!  Avoid “Phishing” Lures to Protect Your Identity

So my wife asked me the other day, “Why are we getting this?”  She was referring to an email we received that said, “Your Federal Tax Payment ID:  9387589 is failed.”  I could see she was a little concerned and wanted to resolve it right away.  And that’s exactly what they want.  That’s how they get ya!  Get an unsuspecting but otherwise conscientious person, who has their stuff together, to respond quickly without questioning or verifying things.  They just want to address it and get it resolved.  Normally that’s a good thing.

Poor grammar notwithstanding, I knew without even reading the body of the email that it was a hoax – a scam.  How?  For starters, I don’t owe Uncle Sam any money for taxes last year or the several years prior.  Secondly, the number referenced in the email doesn’t even contain the correct number of digits to be a valid Social Security or tax ID number.  Even if it did, the number they provided was nowhere near my SSN.  Plus, I don’t own a business, so I don’t have a “Federal Tax ID Number” (also called an EIN “Employer Identification Number”).

Among the other clues indicating the request was bogus is the fact that our Federal government does not notify taxpayers of delinquencies, rejected tax returns, or failed electronic payments by way of an email message.  And if by chance they did, I’d hope it wouldn’t come from some random joker named “Francisco Maghee”.  Not to mention, “Francisco’s” email address prefix was a string of gibberish — “ghnqcsuvktecvy” to be exact.  Never mind that a quick Google search of the domain used in the email address (everything after the “@” symbol) revealed that a spammer had been using a legitimate organization’s domain as the “From” address on their spam emails .  And that was a far cry from a “.gov” top-level domain (TLD), which you’d expect to see from a government agency like the IRS.

Another red flag was the attachment, which I did not open!  It was an executable file (its name ended in “.exe”), which you should never click on or open, unless you’re absolutely sure of what the file contains and that it came from a trusted source.  Since neither of those conditions were the case, there’s a good chance the sender’s objective was to get one of us to click on, and therefore open, the attached file.  Opening the attachment would launch or run the executable file, possibly containing a virus, trojan, spyware, or other form of malware.  Malware can slow down or break your computer, and can be costly and time-consuming to repair.  Malware could also run a program in the background, without your knowledge, and gather your personally identifiable information (PII) for use without your consent, for evil purposes, and/or to steal your identity.

Identity theft occurs when your PII is stolen, taken without your permission, or obtained under false pretenses.  Your information is then used to do any number of things including making unauthorized purchases on your credit card, opening new credit or bank accounts, and applying for and obtaining a loan, just to name a few.

So, what if you get a “phishy” email like the one I received?  Simple.  Delete it immediately and do not open any attachments!

BOTTOM LINE:  Be skeptical.  Question everything.  Don’t be so quick to respond to inquiries received in an email.  That is, if you even respond at all.

If you're looking for great anti-virus software that won't break the bank, try StopSign. You don't pay extra for tech support for difficult malware, and our web protection software just works. Download & install StopSign to find out why our members choose us over the other options.

Internet Privacy and Internet Safety Tips for 2011

Internet Privacy and Internet Safety Tips for 2011

A New Year brings in a lot of new things to everyone… New hopes. New dreams. And yes, sometimes it brings in some new bad things, too. Such is life. But while we can’t help make your favorite sports teams win, and we can’t do anything about that crazy co-worker in the cubicle next to you, but we can give you some tips on how to stay safe online in 2011.

You can bet your bottom dollar that Internet privacy concerns, identity theft, malware distribution, cyber attacks, and a host of other technology-related problems are only going to rise and morph over the course of the year. (They always seem to, don’t they?!) Keep yourself, your family, your information, and your money safe by following the tips below:

  • Change your passwords:

    Yep. All of ’em. I know I mentioned it last year, but if you didn’t change your passwords then, you really should change your passwords right now. The safety and security of the information on your PC is literally a password away from being grabbed and abused by unscrupulous characters on the web.

  • Patch it up:

    You’ve got a computer. You’ve got software. And you’ve probably got patches you can apply to them all. Unpatched machines and software leave holes open that hackers can take advantage of, so patch your PC today. Doing so will not only keep your machine secure, it might make a program or two a bit more peppy or give it a few more features.

  • Desocialize your network:

    Look, I love Twitter, Facebook, an LinkedIn just as much as the next guy or gal, but every now an again you should review and do a little housekeeping on your social networking profiles. Think about it: Do you really need Jake, formerly of accounting, on your friend list now that he’s gone and you only added him because he was a co-worker in the first place? I didn’t think so.

  • Geolocation in moderation:

    Our blog post “Stranger Danger: Geolocation Features and Internet Safety” still stands, in my personal opinion, as one of the most important blog articles written in 2010 from both a personal safety and Internet safety standpoint. If you haven’t seen it, please read our article on geolocation safety tips now, especially if you’re using any of the location-aware features of Twitter, Facebook, FourSquare, or any other service or device.

I sincerely hope these tips help you stay protected. Happy New Year, and I hope you have the best of luck with all of your Internet privacy and Internet security concerns in 2011.

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Is That Picture Worth Downloading?

Is That Picture Worth Downloading?

It’s a well known fact that downloading certain kinds of material is more dangerous than others. Outside of any possible moral, philosophical, or comfort factors, there are security reasons that make the PG-13 (and higher) side of the Internet a hotbed of potential problems for your PC.

But adult sites aren’t the only ones that get targeted. Celebrity/gossip sites, thumbnail/graphic sites, video sharing sites, and even Harry Potter related sites are all targets; often without the knowledge of the site owner.

Once installed on your machine, spyware and Trojans can track your every move. Any link you click, site you visit, or text you read. There have even been cases of spyware creators blackmailing victims they’ve been spying on in an attempt to get cash from them.

Titillating, popular, and/or well-trafficked content on the Internet is big business, and the malware developers of the world know it. Because it’s content that get a lot of eyes looking and clicks happening, the malware folks take advantage of that fact and spread their wares on sites that cater to looky-loo’s. As such, every bikini-wearing beauty, her less-clothed sisters, and other video/picture/movie websites are a possible suspect for computer infection.

So before you head to that site, click that video, or download that picture, think about what you (or rather, your PC) could catch if you do.

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Fake FDIC Phone and Email Scams

Fake FDIC Phone and Email Scams

The name of the FDIC continues to be used by scammers to try to get your money or commit identity theft. In the past few months, the FDIC has been receiving increasing reports of fraudulent phone scam attempts by people claiming to be from the FDIC. These calls are, in fact, a vishing scam. (A form of social engineering that takes place over the phone, often through a VoIP connection) According to the FDIC in their September 2010 Consumer Alert:

To date, the callers have alleged that the call recipient is delinquent in payment of a loan that was applied for over the Internet or made through a payday lender. The loan may or may not actually exist. The caller attempts to authenticate the claim by providing sensitive personal information, such as name, Social Security number, and date of birth, supposedly taken from the loan application. The recipient is then strongly urged to make a payment over the phone to “avoid a lawsuit and possible arrest.” In some instances, the caller is said to sound aggressive and threatening.

Source: FDIC

If you get a phone call, email, fax, carrier pigeon, or anything from the FDIC claiming something akin to the aforementioned, it’s a scam, plain and simple. These scam artists aren’t dumb. They’ll craft an email, a phone script, or even a website to look as legitimate as possible in order to fool you, but it’s not from the FDIC. In fact, the FDIC specifically states that:

The FDIC generally does not initiate unsolicited telephone calls to consumers and is not involved with the collection of debts on behalf of operating lenders and financial institutions.

Source: FDIC

In short, if it’s a phone call, hang up. If it’s an email, don’t click on anything and delete the email. Then go through your bank and credit card statements to make sure you aren’t already facing an identity thief who is trying to gather more data on you. If you find out that you’ve been swindled already, contact your financial institutions immediately.

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Reporting Online Fraud and Cybercrime

Reporting Online Fraud and Cybercrime

If you or someone you know is becomes the victim of online fraud or any other type of cybercrime (or even just an attempt at it), you need to contact the authorities as soon as possible. Keeping it to yourself can lead to repeated attacks, as well as continued spread of Internet fraud, crime, and even increased distribution of viruses and spyware through crime networks that try to set up shop on your computer.

Depending on what level of fraud and/or cybercrime you’re dealing with, you may have to notify multiple agencies. But regardless of how many places you have to contact, doing so will be the first step to stopping the crooks in their tracks. Please use the list below as a starting point to report any incident:

  • An Important First Step:

    If the fraud you’re reporting reporting is, or becomes, aggressive or threatening in any manner, contact your local authorities. The police in your community should be made aware of any potential threats to you, your family, your home, etc.

  • Get Into The System:

    Head to, the “Internet Crime Complaint Center”. This site is a partnership between several government agencies, including the FBI. The IC3 has an online complaint submission form that you can use to report online fraud and other Internet-related scams.

  • If It’s International…:

    If you feel you’re the victim of an international scam operation, contact, a coalition of about 2 dozen countries who want to help stop cross-border cybercrime. You may also want to contact a US Secret Service field office to let them know, too.

  • Contact Credit Reporting Companies:

    If you think you’ve been the victim of identity theft, contact any one of the big 3 credit reporting companies. They’ll get your information disseminated to all three. Their contact info is as follows:

Don’t just be a victim of online fraud and cybercrime. Contact the appropriate authorities and government agencies and stop Internet-related crime before it stops you.

If you're looking for great anti-virus software that won't break the bank, try StopSign. You don't pay extra for tech support for difficult malware, and our web protection software just works. Download & install StopSign to find out why our members choose us over the other options.