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Protecting Your Privacy

There are simple things that you can do to help prevent people from stealing your personal information, and possibly prevent identity theft.  Millions of people report having their identities stolen every year, some of these could have been preventable, and for others it was totally out of their control.  Sometimes companies that we trust with our personal information get compromised, and the personal data of hundreds, thousands, or more are stolen.

To help prevent your identity from being stolen, follow the tips below:

  • Monitor Credit Report: You need to check your credit report on a regular basis, treat it almost like an annual physical at the doctor's office.  By law you can get a free credit report every year.  For more information, check out the following FTC (Federal Trade Commission) site (www.ftc.gov/freereports). 
    • Its also a good idea to monitor your financial accounts regularly and make sure that is no unusual activity (such as purchases that you're not aware of).
    • For those who want additional piece of mind, the reporting services (Experian, Equifax, and TransUnion) offer credit monitoring services for an extra price. 
  • Protect Personal Data: People are often too willing to give away personal information simply because someone asked for it. For example, you walk into a store and buy something and the sales clerk asks you for your phone number before they start ringing up the merchandise. Information like this can be data mined, and can be used to cold call you in the future. Another example, If a site requests that you register with your personal email address, and don't want to give that information. Use 10MinuteMail.com to create a temporary e-mail address that lives for 10 minutes.
    • Note: Be careful about posting too much data about yourself on social networks (like: Twitter or Facebook). Also avoid posting other personal information such as your birthday or physical address.
  • Strong Passwords: One of the best ways to protect your privacy online is to use a strong passwords and vary them between all the web sites you use. These passwords will help prevent criminals from accessing your account information.  To create a strong password read the following article.
    • Note: You need to be aware that some products and services that you have online accounts.  Even if you don't utilize these accounts you should activate them, and change their password so that someone else can't do this without your knowledge.
  • Check Facebook Settings: As you know Facebook and other social networking sites like Twitter can help you to accidentally expose information (such as what you really did over the weekend or what you may think about someone) that you don't want to share with the world. By locking down your privacy controls, you can limit who has access to it and keep it from being indexed by the search engines.
    • Note: Facebook has recently released a dashboard to help you manage your privacy settings so you can quickly see how your information is being shared. If you need more information on these controls, check out the following web page.
  • Out of Office: When you leave for vacation or business travel if you can avoid it don't broadcast it through automatic out of office messages.  Also be careful about not publishing this information on your social networks (i.e.: Facebook and Twitter).  Some criminals have used this information to find out when they can break into people's houses because they know that they're away.
  • Browser Privacy Mode: Popular browsers (i.e.: Firefox and Internet Explorer) have a privacy mode that prevents the browser from keeping track of personal information (i.e.: history, cookies, and cache) while browsing.  If you're concern about sites tracking you as you surf the web, this is one way to help prevent that.  
    • If you want to remove the existing personal information that is already in your browser, both Firefox and Internet Explorer have built-in functionality for deleting it.
  • Computer Privacy: The computer keeps more information  about what you do, then what you might be aware of.  For example, your web browsing history, what documents you recently opened, etc.  If you're concerned about this, there things that you can do to remove this information.
Warning: Use these tools at your own risk. When used they will destroy your data with no way to recover it.
    • CCLEANER:  This is one of the most popular system hygiene tools.  Basically the program erases temporary files to free up disk space, and deletes application history data (such as: recently opened files, browser history and cookies, etc.).  Here is a brief article on it, it also contains the link to download the software.
    • Erase File/Free Space: When you delete a file, the data from that file still exists on your hard drive.  The area on the disk where the file existed is only marked as available, so new files can be store there again.  This means that the original data is still intact and can be recovered.  If you're really concerned about privacy there are tools that can over write a deleted file with random data to make sure it can't be undeleted.  There are also tools that overwrite the free space on disk with random data to make sure that no previously deleted files can be recovered.
    • Hard Disk Destruction: If you're getting rid of an old hard drive, or giving away a computer make sure to wipe the drive(s) with a tool like DBAN (Darik's Boot and Nuke).  DBAN make your hard drive unrecoverable (by any method I am aware of) by overwriting the disk it with random data.
  • Paper Shredder: If you don't have a paper shredder then I recommend that you buy one.  I would suggest shredding any document that have personal or private information that you don't need anymore.
    • Paperless Statements: Many companies are now offering electronic statements  If this make sense for you, you may want to consider using this option.  It could be one less paper bill that you have to manage, it also helps to save on paper.
  • Locked Mailbox: If you use an unlocked mailbox, you may be exposing your personal information.  These types of mail boxes are easy targets for criminals trying to steal your financial statements, or other types of personal data.
  • Opting-Out: The FCRA (Fair Credit Reporting Act) provides you the right to 'Opt-Out' from  consumer credit reporting companies from providing your credit information for unsolicited offers. For more information check out the OptOutPrescreen.com or call 1-888-5-OPTOUT (1-888-567-8688).  Also see the following FTC site.
    • The Direct Marketing Association’s (DMA) Mail Preference Service lets you opt-out of receiving unsolicited commercial mail from companies that use this service for a total of five years. Note: your registration can't stop mail from organizations that are not part of the DMA, because its completely voluntary.
  • Do Not Call: If you want to help prevent from being called at your home or on your cell phone by a telemarketer, consider adding yourself to the National Do Not Call Registry. By registering your phone number into this site, it will help keep telemarketers from trying to contacting you.
  • Google Privacy: Google offers a Web History feature that allows you to view, and manage how it tracks information about you that it uses to personalize your experience on their different sites.  For more information, check out the following site or watch the video below.
  • Beware Hidden Information: Some people are concerned about the hidden information (known as metadata) that is stored in documents. Many popular applications store this information for different reasons.  Although, there has been issues where this metadata has revealed facts that people and corporations were not expecting to be released.
    • To address this problem some software developers include tools in their applications to remove this data.  For example, the current version of Microsoft Office contains built-in utilities that allow you to manually view/remove the metadata from its files.  See the application help file for more information.
  • Encryption: One of the best ways to protect your personal information on your computer is to encrypt it.  If you're using Microsoft Windows Vista or higher (only supported in Ultimate and Enterprise editions).  The OS supports two types of encryption. File encryption called EFS, and full disk encryption call BitLocker (see the hardware requirements).  
Waring: Make sure to keep backups of your encryption keys, because if they get lost or damaged there is no way to recover your data.
    •  If you're using another operating system, check your OS's help file for more information about the options you have available or use program called TrueCrypt.
  • RFID Privacy: Modern credit cards and other forms of identification (such as: passports) are now being embedded with RFID (Radio Frequency ID) chips that contain personal information about you.  RFID chips are small devices that can be blasted with a radio signal to return some encoded data.  For example a lot of companies use RFID cards to allow employees to enter a building or secure area.  These chips are being installed into more types of cards that we use everyday like bus passes, electronic locks, etc.  The greatest problem with these chips is that criminals have created ways of stealing this information off of you without your knowledge.  To fight back you can buy wallets specifically designed to block data from being read off the cards while they are stored in them.  Do a search in your favorite search engine for RFID wallets, I am sure you can find one.
  • Privacy Policies:  Almost all the major web sites will post a privacy policy to let you know how they will use the data that they collect while you're using their site.  So if you want to know how your information is going to be used, read these policies.  Sometimes links to these policies can be found in the footer of the main page of the site.
For those that are truly paranoid about their privacy, there are some other things that you should consider.
  • Bluetooth Devices: Devices that use Bluetooth technology are designed to be convenient, but its not as secure as I think it should be.  Hackers have been able to crack its encryption algorithms for years.  If you're concerned about this technology, I would suggest disabling on your devices if you're not using it.
  • Mobile Phones: Now that mobile phone have become so ubiquitous in society, marketing companies are looking at ways they can use these devices to market products to you based on your location.  One of these technologies is called Location Based Services (LBS).  LBS is going to be hotly discussed privacy topic depending on how it evolves. See the following Wikipedia article for more information. 
  • Private Browsing: There are some products and services that you can use to help web sites from tracking you.  For example, if you want to see what a web site can knows about you just by visiting it, check out the following web page.
    • VPNs: A VPN acts as a middleman with your Internet traffic (such as: IM, VoIP, etc.), and all data between your computer and the VPN provider is encrypted.  You do need to be aware that after your data leaves the VPN provider your traffic will be unencrypted.  To find a list of available service providers, use your favorite search engine.
    • Anonymous Browsing: There are services that act as a proxy between your browser and a remote web site.  They can help prevent a web site from tracking you across the Internet. To find a list of available service providers, use your favorite search engine.
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