4 Things You Should Never Text or Email

Most of us in our “instant gratification isn’t enough” society assume that the potential fallout from transmitting sensitive information via text, fax or email is outweighed by the convenience of getting something where it needs to be fast. After all, becoming the victim of an identity-related crime isn’t the end of the world, right?

Define “End of the World”

While it’s not technically the end of the world, you may find yourself wishing for it. There is nothing quite like that maddening feeling you get while reading a notice from a collection agency informing you that you owe money for goods or services that you never purchased.

The next order of business is where people tend to really lose it: Getting a credit report riddled with identity theft-related errors. If you are lucky, whoever used your information to make the purchases that eventually hit your mailbox in the form of a collection notice only perpetrated that one incursion on your financial reality. That said, look closely at your credit report(s) because indices of identity-related fraud can be similar to spotting a cockroach — for every one you see, there may be more you don’t. (You can pull your credit reports for free each year via AnnualCreditReport.com and view a free credit report summary, updated each month, for free on Credit.com.)

Whether your identity has been ransacked or cherry-picked, that collection notice is often the starting gun for a marathon of annoyance and emotional turmoil that can take months or even years to finish. The mess left behind by an identity thief is like a home burglary, minus the physical clutter. Someone has invaded your private space, in this case the parts associated with finance, and committed crimes using what they found. And, while identity theft is a third certainty in life, you can make it harder for fraudsters to get ahold of your personal information.

Don’t Make It Easy

So, you are about to send some sensitive piece of information — something that can be used to steal your identity — by way of email, text, voicemail or fax. It needs to get there, and your only other option is to go in person, or try to get someone on the phone.

Can you send it? Of course you can, but understand the risk: You don’t know what’s happening on the other end with your information. Who has access to the mail that comes in, the voicemail, the fax machine, the email (include in here hackers who have successfully phished malware onto the computer on the receiving end)?

Let’s make it more nerve-wracking: When you call to provide that information, who are you talking to?

Always ask yourself these questions.

While it may sound simplistic, when you’re on the phone with a representative of a large organization and you know the number that you called is correct, you’ve done pretty much everything you can to be careful. Increasingly, large organizations are practicing safer information storage and have a number of procedures in place to protect you from fraud. These practices are not fail-safe, but they are as much as you can expect.

But let’s say you’re sending that information to your general practitioner, an M.D. who works solo or in a small group. And let’s not pick on your doctor. There are countless professionals, organizations and small businesses out there who have enough of our personally identifiable information to open us up to the risk of identity theft.

A short list would include: your doctor, your dentist, your lawyer, your accountant, your children’s school, your church, your favorite charities, your gym, your alma mater, and many of the services and people you hire to make life easier.

How do you know that they are practicing good information security? The answer: You don’t. That’s why it’s a good idea to be stingy with your sensitive personal information.

Things You Should Not Send

1. Social Security number. This is the skeleton key to your financial life. It can be used to open accounts, steal tax refunds and commit many other kinds of fraud.

2. Your credit card information. There is too much malware out there for this to be a safe practice. Don’t send this information via email or any other electronic means that is not secure (look for https:// and the Padlock on websites before hitting submit).

3. A copy of your driver’s license. Remember, fraudsters are not big on in-person transactions, but they are very good at talking their way around security protocols. If they have your Social Security number already (this can often be found online through shady websites), and they have enough other pieces of your personal information to convince you they are an official organization, they can dupe you into sending your photo ID — or steal it from someplace you do business — they can do a lot of damage.

4. Your PIN codes or passwords. These should never be shared, period, but if you are sharing that information in a pinch to someone close to you, do it on the phone . Malware is too prevalent to risk communicating that information electronically.

While all of this may sound like common sense, the myriad mistakes people make on a daily basis is beyond the ken of understanding. The key to staying safe is staying vigilant. Always practice the Three Ms: Minimize your exposure, monitor your accounts and manage the damage the minute you discover a problem.

While there is no preventing identity-related crime, you can avoid becoming an unwitting volunteer.

Image: MartinPrescott

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How Staying Off Social Media Can Keep You Safer & Happier This Summer

sharing-on-social-media

Let’s face it, there’s no bigger downer than working all day and coming home to images of other people’s awesome vacations — that is, nothing except maybe coming home to find out you’ve been robbed or had your identity stolen.

According the Pew Research Center, 65% of adults use social media, and among people aged 18 to 29, the percentage skyrockets to more than 90% of the population. For a family with kids, a staggering amount of information finds its way onto potentially public forums. As usage increases, so too does the risk of identity-related crimes.

FOMO Gets Real

The good folks at Merriam-Webster added about 2,000 new words to the company’s unabridged dictionary this year, among them, “FOMO,” an acronym that stands for “fear of missing out.” This fear has created an environment where hundreds of millions of social media users overshare every morsel of their lives as a quid for connecting in a virtual setting with others who have a similar unquenchable thirst.

Unfortunately, this type of over-sharing — and, even, FOMO, itself — could be leading to bigger issues.

Feeling Depressed?

It really could be FOMO. Studies have shown that the fear of missing out causes anxiety and depression, and that it can resemble addiction. And here’s the problem with that: The attendant distraction level produced can open the door to mistakes. Distraction is all a thief needs to scam you. FOMO exposes you and your family to crime.

A good fraudster or scam artist can use all kinds of information — things that seem completely un-useable to the non-criminal mind — to profit at your expense.

And, if you don’t think getting robbed should count as an identity-related crime, consider the fact that burglars and identity thieves routinely scour social media to find targets — including people who are on vacation. The home address and current location of a social media user can be relatively easy to figure for a savvy surfer.

While a lot of FOMO happens on social sites like Snapchat, Instagram, Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook or YouTube, there’s plenty happening by way of text, too, especially among young people who can easily generate hundreds, even thousands, of messages in no time.

On the texting front, with so many texts whizzing around you and your kids, it is way too easy to click on a phishing link that downloads malware, and from there it’s just a matter of time before you are scammed.

FOGRO (Fear of Getting Ripped Off)

The antidote for all this fevered activity? FOGRO, or fear of getting ripped off. And while, admittedly, it isn’t as much fun to say, it might be a step in the right direction.

The key to rightsizing FOMO might be admitting it could be a problem. That may be all it takes to instill a little fear of getting ripped off, and with that, a slightly less reactive connection to the media we use, whether social or person-to-person communication.

Even a momentary pause before posting or clicking can mean the difference between a normal day and a nightmare.

Talk about the pause button with your family, and why it matters.

Since it seems unlikely that current trends in social media use are going to take a turn for the safer, I thought it might be helpful to review how to best navigate social media so it’s use is more secure.

Rules for Safer Social

  1. Set privacy settings as tightly as possible. Don’t let strangers see anything that can be used to verify your identity or that of your children (date of birth, email address, place of work, home address, schools attended, places where you’ve lived, maiden names, etc).
  2. Don’t interact with strangers, and talk to your kids about what it means to accept followers on the various accounts they use.
  3. Since there are bragging rights attached to likes and followers, make sure your family understands what kinds of information can be used to scam you.
  4. Nothing personal: I know people who refer to their children by number on social media, and others who wish happy birthday to their own kids online with everything but his or her Social Security number. Less is more (security) when online.
  5. Never click a link that’s texted to you, and make sure your kids don’t either.
  6. Turn off location services. This feature isn’t necessary on social. Location services tell people — including crooks — where you are and where you aren’t. Don’t use this feature.

Remember, you’re always one click away from trouble. (If you believe you’ve been a victim of identity theft, you may want to monitor your credit. You can view two of your scores, updated each month, for free on Credit.com and view your annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.)

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Image: BraunS

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Can You Be Sued for Texting a Driver?

sued-for-sending-text

Text-message senders, beware: U.S. courts are moving ever closer to blaming the sender of a text for car accidents that occur while the recipient is driving and texting back.

How could someone be responsible for an accident caused by a driver when they weren’t even in the car?

I explored this only-in-the-digital-age notion several years ago in the MSNBC series, The Red Tape Chronicles, when a New Jersey man was sued after he texted with a woman around the time he struck another car, causing two sisters to become partially paralyzed. Briefly, the legal theory relies on the notion of “aiding and abetting,” an act that causes harm (a tort) to someone else. The plaintiff’s attorney in that case compared sending a text to a driver to holding a piece of paper in front of a driver’s face causing temporary blindness, which could lead to an accident.

That 2012 case, which gained national attention, was decided in the defendant’s favor, to the delight of critics who found the notion absurd. But while media cameras were focused elsewhere, a New Jersey appeals court left the door wide open for future lawsuits against text message conversation participants outside the car.

Now a Pennsylvania case has opened that door even wider.

A Lawrence County court recently ruled that a plaintiff may proceed with a lawsuit aiming to collect damages from a text sender after the recipient texted and failed to notice a motorcycle rider in front of her slowed to make a turn. The driver, Laura Gargiulo, struck the motorcycle, dragging rider Daniel Gallatin 100 feet to his death. Gargiulo had received texts from both Joseph Gargiulo (relationship unclear from court documents) and Timothy Fend, whom the court describes as a “paramour,” or lover. Both are named as defendants in the lawsuit.

Laura Gargiulo pled guilty to involuntary manslaughter in 2014, and served 60 days in jail for Gallatin’s death. Now, the Gallatin estate is suing for damages. Both Fend and Joseph Gargiulo filed objections to being included in the lawsuit, saying no law creates a duty that text message senders can be responsible for the actions of a recipient who is driving. However, Judge John W. Hodge sided with Gallatin’s lawyers, indicating it was possible they could prove later that Joseph Gargiulo or Fend “aided and abetted” violation of the state’s distracted driving laws.

Hodge relied on that New Jersey appeals court ruling in his decision.

“Although not binding on the court here, [that ruling] suggests that the sender of a text message can be liable for sending a message while the recipient is operating a motor vehicle if the sender knew, or had reason to know, the recipient was driving,” Hodge wrote.

The ruling is not a clear finding that texters outside a car can be responsible for accidents caused by a driver; it merely extends the possibility for such a finding a bit farther down the line. In fact, in the New Jersey case cited by Hodge, the court was actually upholding a lower-court finding that a defendant in a similar car crash was not liable — but only because the facts of that case made it difficult to conclude the sender knew the recipient was driving. The appeals court went to great pains to make clear it may fight for a plaintiff in the future.

“We conclude that a person sending text messages has a duty not to text someone who is driving if the texter knows, or has special reason to know, the recipient will view the text while driving,” New Jersey Superior Court Appellate Division Judge Victor Ashrafi wrote.

Citing that opinion, Judge Hodge merely refused to remove Joseph Gargiulo or Fend from the Gallatin lawsuit, for now. There’s a lot the plaintiff still has to prove. That said, the case should give anyone texting with a driver serious pause. While drivers are ultimately responsible for what their vehicles hit, it’s easy to imagine a situation where a text message sender should have known better. For example, the driver could say, “I’m driving right now,” and if the sender persists in being distracting, say, by sending flirtatious messages, one can imagine a plaintiff’s attorney pursuing the aiding and abetting theory.

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Image credit: Rouzes

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