This article is part of a series that aims to shed light on critical privacy issues for our clients. Our goal is to offer straightforward guidance on how you can protect yourself and your family in this age of proliferating cybercrime. You can find our previous articles on social media, spam and phishing, and simplifying complex passwords.


By David Koch

This article, on privacy best practices, should help you better understand what crooks are looking for, how they attempt to get it, and how to protect yourself.

Privacy in the Physical World

With all the news about large companies like Sony, Target, and Yahoo getting hacked, we may overlook the fact that many crooks still do it the old fashioned way, by digging through your trash or your mailbox. Intercepting checks is still one of the easiest ways for a criminal to commit fraud on your account. Not only does it gives them, literally, carte blanche; it also provides your name, address, routing and account numbers to use however they please.

A friend of mine ordered checks, which never came—only to find out that someone bought a car (among other things) with his stolen checks. The thief signed the check ADAM. Just like that, all caps, block letters, no last name. It took him months to get the funds back in his account, plus the additional hassle of changing his account number.

How can you avoid his misfortune? Here are several best practices:

Set up online bill pay for as many things as you can and avoid mailing checks. Most banks offer a bill pay feature at no additional charge. In fact, they view bill-pay users as stickier customers: The more you use it, the less likely it is that you’ll leave. An even better way to pay bills, however, is with a credit card. Rewards points aside, the benefit with using a credit card is that if it is compromised, your money is still in your bank account.

Don’t use your debit card. This may sound counter intuitive, but these cards deduct funds directly from your bank account, whereas credit card charges tally up and are not due until the end of the month. This buys you time when a card gets used fraudulently, and you still have your funds to pay your bills. The credit card acts as a buffer between your bank account and the crooks.

Buy a cross-cut shredder, and use it. These go for as little as $30; most newer models shred credit cards, too. Use the shredder to destroy ATM receipts, credit-card bills, mortgage statements, pay stubs, insurance packets, day-to-day bills and even junk mail. Cross-cut protects against someone taping it all together better than simple strip-cut shredders.

Monitor, monitor, monitor

Check bank balances and credit card charges frequently, at least weekly. This ensures that if your accounts are compromised you’ll discover it sooner and have more time to take action. You’ll be better able to remember all your own transactions—and if you find something fishy you can get the ball rolling sooner. It’s an easily accomplished but essential personal finance security discipline: You have the ability to aggregate and see all your accounts within one login like, with your own bank, or with a smartphone app.

Consider this: Many retail establishments record video of their customers and cashiers, but many of them recycle the “tapes” every 30 days. If you only check your statement once per month, and you need to get the police involved, that footage may already be gone.

It doesn’t help that many transactions may appear cryptic on your statement. I recently got a charge called “Kastl Amusements” for example – if too much time had passed since I looked, I would never have remembered that it was from buying those tickets to the Greek Festival.

Protect Your Home

Think beyond traditional home security systems. There are several ways that you may be unwittingly opening up your home to crooks. First of all, never put your home address into your car’s navigation unit under “Home.” If your car ever gets stolen, all they need to do is have the navigation unit take them back to your empty house, and they’ll rob you there too.

This goes for your Google Maps, Apple Maps, and Waze apps as well. Put the address as a cross street, or even a gas station nearby. Once you’re in your own neighborhood, I’m sure you can make it the rest of the way yourself.

Another little-known tip is to take a pair of scissors and cut out your address from your car’s registration and proof of insurance. Leave all the other information—just cut out the street address. You may not have a navigation system, but all criminals need to do is look in the glove box to find the address to an empty home.

Once thieves have your car and your address, they’ll often then have your automatic garage door opener as well. Most people don’t lock the door inside of their garage. Even if you do, they’ll drive right in and close the garage door behind them. No one will be able to see them break into your home. Adding insult to injury, they’ll load up your own car with your personal belongings.

Get Your Credit Report Every Year

Since 2003, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA) requires each of the nationwide credit reporting companies—Equifax, Experian, and TransUnion—to provide you with a free copy of your credit report, at your request, once every 12 months.

Get your free copy each year by going to Make it a habit, like spring cleaning, and look closely at each of your revolving accounts. Close any credit cards that you don’t use and report anything out of the ordinary. You will still have to pay for your FICO score, if you want to see it, but at least this way you’ll be able to find anything clearly fraudulent.




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