All original work © Jason W. Wong. Please ask for permission to reproduce any work.

All original work © Jason W. Wong. Please ask for permission to reproduce any work.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

It always feels like somebody's watching me (and I got no privacy)

Well, it finally happened--I've become a victim of identity theft. I've spent the last week filing the necessary reports and replacing everything that needs to be replaced. But I didn't lose my wallet--I want you all to know that this happened somewhere near or around my own home. So this week I wanted to focus on home security. All the pretty and well-designed things you bring into your home don't mean a thing if they're compromised or stolen (and that includes your identity and personal information.)

We naturally think of alarm systems for our homes when it comes to protecting material possessions. But I met an interesting woman last week who lived for several years in Cape Town, South Africa. Her home had been burgled and she said it's a common occurrance over there. She mentioned that no matter how many alarms and locks you place on your home, at some point you'll trust someone with that code (a cleaner, a security guard, etc.) and eventually that person can betray you. Even the police were too overwhelmed to deal with residential break-ins. So what was her solution? Her neighbors. She said that the closest relationships she had were with her neighbors--she could call any of them in the middle of the night, knowing they had her back. And she would come running if they ever called her. The lesson here is to really know the people living around you. Even though a Neighborhood Watch can be hard to organize in a city, your neighbors can still be the best security system for you home.

I don't know if my thief did it all electronically or by stealing my mail, but I'm getting a locked mailbox just in case. So far I've seen these rather stylish options at Home Depot:

This wall-mounted model comes in a variety of finishes and is pretty understated.

And I like the simple curve of this mailbox, too:

When I told a friend a colleague of mine what had happened with my ID theft, she recommended cancelling my seldom-used credit cards. "But wouldn't that hurt my credit?" I asked.

"Well...yes and no. In the end, having all these store cards and lines of unused credit can look just as bad because to some creditors it's like you have more ways of debts to fall into," she responded. I trust her--she used to work in finance--so goodbye to my department store cards.

Next, I needed to beef up security on my home internet service, and as I did this I kept hitting myself, asking why we didn't do this three weeks ago. Or last spring. Or even last year! All my tech friends are probably shaking their heads at me in shame, but I didn't realize you could stop broadcasting the SSID of your network to others, or that keeping the factory default name could let hackers figure out which model router you're using. And I was a fool to keep the default encryption code as a password instead of using something personal. These are all small steps--and possibly not enough to prevent the most determined hackers--but at least it's something you can do.

My former finance friend and colleague also recommended an ID/credit monitoring service. There are a lot out there (like Life Lock) that provide similar services. They will alert you if new lines of credit have been opened or if applications have been submitted in your name. For $10-20 a month, they're worth it for some piece of mind.

Even if you can't afford or justify paying for that service, at the very least you've got to run a periodic credit report on yourself. Free Credit Reports really is free and lets you know what lines of credit you currently have open. Forgot you still had that credit card from The Limited back in the '90s? Well, it'll show up on your credit report.

I just hope my nightmare will end someday. I always think about this article I read a couple of years ago that shows how long it can last. (If the "other" Jason is out there reading this, please give me a break--I took a 60% pay cut when I switched careers, and I'm just trying to get by and save a little for retirement.)

For the rest of you reading this, please learn from my mistakes.

No comments: