While the term ‘Big Brother’ may now be associated more with reality TV than George Orwell’s novel ‘1984’, our lives have increasingly become one big pool of data analysis that someone else can use to monitor us. Phones. Wearable watches and health monitors. Internet-connected home monitoring systems, refrigerators, and vehicles. The someone else who is accessing our information can be anyone from the government to various companies to family to people we don’t even know.1
And spoiler alert: The people that are tracking us don’t always have the best intentions.
Government agencies, like the NSA; and private companies, like Intelius.com or mylife.com, collect tons of data every day, simply by tracking mobile phone activity, internet browsing activity, and credit card transactions. It’s all out there and it’s being used. Criminals don’t need a master’s degree in undercover work to figure out when you are home, your travel patterns, or how to best steal or harm you.
We basically have three choices. First, one can live completely off the grid.2 Second, you can keep doing what you are doing, which is likely playing a little too fast and too loose with your personal safety and security. Or, you could live a little smarter and a little safer. Following are 10 ways—online and offline—to get started.
Lots of people go on vacation, snap photos, and then share them on Facebook and other social media. If I’m a thief who’s paying attention, I’m going to feel pretty good about checking out your house the same day you posted ‘Beach fun!’ pictures. Social media posts show where you are, but maybe more importantly, they show where you aren’t.3
Social media sites provide stars and other forms of meaningless rewards for completing your profiles (providing information like age, marital status, birthday, place of birth, and more). The more you provide, the easier it is for bad guys to steal or misuse your identity. Provide as few access points as possible for criminals. Every time you enter your information on any site, you have added one more way for a criminal to hack their way to you. Be stingy with your data.
When you’re purchasing something or paying a bill, you may be given the option to make an ACH/debit or credit transaction. Choose credit. A debit transaction gives the vendor permission to take money directly out of your bank account, which is unsettling by itself. The National Automated Clearing House Association (NACHA), which is the national ACH network administrator, advises businesses on best practices, and has made it very clear to businesses and financial institutions that the online credentials of those authorizing ACH payments can be compromised or stolen by fraudsters. Then, from a processing standpoint, a credit card transaction guarantees the transfer of funds to a merchant; ACH transactions are not guaranteed.
Even today, most default passwords for new applications or services are password (with a P or a small P) or 1234, 12345, or 9999 (depending on the length requirement).4 Hackers try to figure out one of your passwords by tracking your social media. They figure out your family members’ names, pets’ names, sports teams and other passions by checking out your social media, then enter it into a program that combines those words with numbers and symbols a million different ways, and voila, they have access. They then can likely use that password against multiple sites, credit cards and bank accounts you use, because, like just about everyone, you likely use the same password for multiple purposes. Also, if a hacker breaks into only one web site and gets all of its users’ passwords, they then try to use those passwords against various sites. Again, each place you give your information is one more potential entry point. As a general rule, to protect your passwords, make sure you change any temporary or default passwords, and then consider using a password manager tool such as Dashlane or Zoho Vault.
A lot of businesses will ask you to complete a form in order to do business with them. If it’s a hospital or school, it makes sense. But if it’s a tire company or a haircut chain, don’t.5 They want the information and will tell you it’s for their records but it usually isn’t necessary to do business. That unnecessary sharing represents one more place bad guys can go to learn more about you.
There are many websites that hold information on you. Go to one of them and look yourself up; it’s alarming. Make a new year’s resolution (any time of the year) and remove your information from these sites—maybe do one every month. Sites that store personal details include Intelius.com, Acxiom.com, and MyLife.com.
There are more and more phone scams out there that start off with callers saying things like, ‘Oh hello there…’ or ‘Can you hear me?’ They seem innocent up front and almost like you’re talking with a real person, but they’re just sneaky ways to draw you in or to record your voice to use while trying to access your credit card accounts and other sensitive information. If someone calls and there’s a delay, it’s likely to be a scammer. And these calls are only getting more frequent; last year the FCC reported that American consumers received about 29 billion robocalls last year.
Thieves know most Americans revere the IRS as the government agency you don’t mess with. Many figure that if the IRS wants something, you better provide it no matter what. No one wants to be audited, after all. Thieves leverage that blind trust by asking for personal information or financial information, posing as the IRS. In the most typical (and scary) scam, a thief posing as an IRS official calls threatening to have a sheriff come haul you off to jail immediately if you don’t settle an outstanding debt. The scammers have usually pulled enough info about you from other sources (social media, for example) to have enough information to sound alarmingly credible. Hang up! If the IRS really wants to contact you, they will send a letter.
Many criminals are still kicking it old school and trying to steal from us the old fashioned way. Make it difficult for a potential intruder to hide by using outdoor lighting and trimming shrubs and bushes. Keep outdoor lights on in the evening. Use timers to turn TVs and lights off and on while you are away. Avoid obvious locations for your safe. Most importantly, do not allow workers into your home, where they can get a feel for the ‘goods’ and layout. If they need a drink or to use a phone, bring it to them.
Most of us are more likely to ask if a hotel serves free breakfast than to ponder our safety. Read reviews from sites such as TripAdvisor or do an internet search about the specific area you are considering. When selecting a room, ask for one closer to elevators. Bad guys like escape routes and prefer to lurk near stairwells.
Nothing’s ever happened to you before? Consider yourself lucky, but I can assure you that this is one of those areas where everything is ok until it isn’t. Personally, even before graduating from college, I came home to strangers robbing my apartment and separately had a car broken into. Both could have easily been avoided using common sense.6 Later in life, I was robbed at gunpoint.7 I’ve worked with clients who have had their social security stolen, tax returns filed in their name, fallen victim to phone scams, and on and on and on. Scammers are everywhere.
You can greatly reduce your vulnerability by using common sense, being stingy with your information and keeping yourself in safe and secure surroundings. Cover the simple basics, and you can eliminate most of the threats.
1 In the good old days I could have inserted a joke here but political tensions are just a tad too high for that now!
2 Again, in the past I would have made a joke, but more and more people are actually literally ‘heading for the hills’.
3 For a thief, ‘hooray we are in Jamaica, look at how much fun we are having’ equals ‘hooray, they are not home; I am going to have so much fun ransacking their house.’
4 Your name plus the number 1 is not a password.
5 You don’t need a birthday card from Tony’s Oil Change Express.
6 Something I didn’t have in college.
7 Leaving a concert early and heading down a dark street to a car with just a few other people is not a great idea. In fact, it’s so obviously stupid it doesn’t make my current top 10 list!