Category Archives: Protecting your identity

Unemployed get mortgage assistance

If you are unemployed and having trouble making your mortgage payments, the Obama Administration is offering some relief. The forbearance period will be extended from 3 months to 12 months. Upfront hurdles will also be removed making it easier for unemployed borrowers to qualify. Even if you are seriously delinquent, this program may work for you if you don’t have a job.

“The current unemployment forbearance programs have mandatory periods that are inadequate for the majority of unemployed borrowers,” U.S. Housing and Urban Development Secretary Shaun Donovan said. “Today, 60 percent of the unemployed have been out of work for more than three months and 45 percent have been out of work for more than six. Providing the option for a year of forbearance will give struggling homeowners a substantially greater chance of finding employment before they lose their home.”

Contact a certified housing counselor for more information. Don’t pay for foreclosure help. There are free services that can help. In most communities it’s as simple as dialing “211″ to find free help. Click here to read more about your options to save your home.

Related links you may like:
Do you have a Fannie or Freddie loan?
Foreclosure rescue scams – you don’t have to pay for help
Ways to save your home

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Phishing attack hits Gmail – how to keep your information safe

If you use Gmail, you’ll want to be on high alert as Google says a phishing attack from China is targeting Gmail accounts. Google even says accounts of U.S. government officials were targeted.

Google says the phishing attack’s goal was to monitor emails and change forwarding settings. The company says the account hijackings were not the result of a problem with Gmail.

Phishing attacks can be executed with malware or when a user simply responds to a fraudulent email and unknowingly gives away sensitive information. Banks and email providers will never send you an email asking you to verify your credentials. If you hover over these fake hyperlinks you’ll often see that the link that appears to be http://www.jennstrathman.com is really http://www.phishing.com and so on.

Google reminded consumers to improve security of their accounts. This is good advice for everyone who uses email.  They suggest a 2-step verification process where a code is sent to your phone or other device. You need to enter your password and that code before you sign in.  Google will remember that code for that computer for up to 30 days which makes it a little less of a pain to use 2-step verification.

If you’re interested, watch this video on how you do it. It’s pretty good.

Some verification processes can be annoying. I recently tried Facebook’s, and found it to be a huge hassle. I say this, and I’m a big advocate of privacy and doing what you can to reduce your digital footprint. If you use the same computer all the time, it may not be a big deal. At least try it and see if it works for you as all the verification processes vary slightly.

Whether it’s email or your bank account, always use a strong password. Characters, Capital Letters, and numbers are important to making it more difficult to figure out a password.

Remember all these passwords is difficult as every company has different requirements. Instead of remembering them all, you may want to try a password management program. Just choose carefully as you are giving your iinformatio to a third party application. Security consultants I’ve talked with like KeePass.

Avoid using a public computer. You don’t know if there’s malware loaded onto the computer to steal your keystrokes. Think it can’t happen to you. Think again. This woman accessed hers on a cruise ship, and suddenly someone hijacked her email account.

Related links you may like:
Google yourself to find private information that’s publicly posted
New ways to erase your digital footprint

How to keep your name off a sucker list

Are you a sucker? You might say no, but it takes just one mistake online or on the phone and you could become a sucker for life. Scammers create lists called, “sucker lists” when they come across an easy victim. The elderly are prime targets, but in this digital age younger generations can easily fall prey.

It can happen if you respond to just one illegitimate offer. Think it can’t happen to you?

That’s what this family thought.Unlike the do not call list and do not email list, there is not a list that can remove your name from the sucker list. Once you’re on the sucker list, it’s virtually impossible to get your name removed.  So, take steps to prevent the problem from happening.

1. Reduce your junk mail
Sign up for the DMA Mail Preference Service to reduce unwanted catalogues and other direct marketing material

2. Opt out of pre-approved credit and insurance offers
Click the link above or call 1-888-5-OPT-OUT.  Opting out online will last five years.  To permanently opt out, click on the link above and mail in the form.

3. Get off commercial e-mail lists
Click here to sign up for eMPS which is the email Preference Service
The list removes your name from commercial email lists

4. Unsubscribe from unwanted mass marketing emails
Click “unsubscribe” at the bottom of unwanted email, and remove your name from that company’s marketing list.  In light of the recent hacking of email addresses used by companies for marketing, this is a good tip to protect your identity.

5. Add a deceased loved one’s name to the deceased do not contact list
Click here to stop the pain you feel when you get mail for a loved one that’s passed

6. Add an elderly loved one’s name to the do not contact caretaker’s registration
Click here to ensure your loved one you are caring for won’t fall for a scam or waste their money on things they don’t need while you’re not looking

7. Order the 10 FREE consumer reports kept about you
Your annual credit report gets the most attention, but there are 9 other reports that companies collect.  Make sure they are accurate so you are not penalized when you go to rent a home, get insurance, or get credit.

National do-not-track bill takes a step forward

The issue of digital tracking is getting a lot of attention in Congress. Senator Jay Rockefeller IV introduced the Do-Not-Track Online Act of 2011.  It gives consumers the option of opting out so your online activities won’t be tracked by Internet companies.

An investigation I did for NewsChannel 5 in November, showed you how tracking cookies are left behind on your computer and the security and privacy issues with the cookies.  Most consumers have no idea these cookies are put on your computer to track your habits.  It’s how a website keeps tabs on you, and targets ads directed toward your interests.

The cookies raise privacy concerns about what a company knows about you.  It’s spawned lots of independent mechanisms to stop tracking, and the browsers have responded as well. However, Congress wants even more choice for consumers.

“Recent reports of privacy invasions have made it imperative that we do more to put consumers in the driver’s seat when it comes to their personal information,” said Rockefeller. “I believe consumers have a right to decide whether their information can be collected and used online. This bill offers a simple, straightforward way for people to stop companies from tracking their movements online.”

This act would include tracking on mobile devices.   The Federal Trade Commission and Attorneys General would enforce the law.  The FTC will play a role in what mechanism is used to give consumers an opt out option.

Until we have a federal solution, consumers need to take action. You need to stay up to date on the changes your favorite browser is making.  Browsing privately or incognito is a good place to start, but you should also add plug-ins and extensions to make your browsing experience even more secure.  Don’t forget to update your browser when prompted. The latest versions are the ones loaded with the most security and tracking options.

Related links you may like:
Erasing your digital footprint
Updated ways to erase your digital footprint
Browsers take action to keep your information private

Ordering flowers online may lead to junk email

Thinking about sending mom flowers for Mothers’ Day?  While you can get most items cheaper online, flowers are one thing that are better when they’re locally delivered.  You’ll pay less at a local florist because you’re not paying a middleman.  I’ve also learned since my Valentine’s Day test for NewsChannel 5, that you can also avoid a barrage of floral reminders if you skip the online orders.

We tested a few online sites, and needed to give our email information for billing purposes.  When you checkout, you’re usually asked if you want to receive promotional emails.  Sometimes I click the box. Sometimes I don’t. The promotional emails for 1-800-FLOWERS are like none I’ve ever received before, and I do lots of shopping online.

The emails started out slow, with just two in January.  I got four in February, and then March rolled along and the emails skyrocketed. In March, I got an email every two days and sometimes more.  In April, some days I got more than one email. Since January, I’ve received at least 60 emails.  On May 1st, I received three emails.  Mother’s Day is the obvious reason for the onslaught in the last few weeks, but is there really a need to send me more than 60 emails in such a short time?  It’s to the point where I consider them spam.

I could easily hit “unsubscribe,”  but now it’s a game to see just how many emails I’ll get. Interestingly, the floral company gives you the option to reduce the number of mailings to just once a week. They must realize they send out a lot of emails. Your other option when you hit “unsubscribe” is to completely unsubscribe.

If you do a lot of shopping online, it’s a good idea to set-up a separate email address from your primary one.  Then, you can give the secondary email to companies. If you agree to marketing material for the occasional deal, you won’t need to worry about emails clogging up your Inbox. With a secondary account, you only have to read them when you’re looking for a deal.

In the digital age, something as simple as an email address is also a security risk.  Many of us learned this the hard way as our favorite companies emailed us to tell us their email lists were hacked. The hackers may only have your email address, but what information can the hackers gain from that to steal your identity in other places? This is really a concern if your email address is your username on another site.

Enjoy the holiday this weekend, but if you must order mom a gift online — choose carefully who you give your email address to and read all the fine print associated with your order so your Inbox doesn’t get filled with junk.

Related links you may like:
Security breach shines light on tips to protect your personal information
Getting rid of junk email
Erase your digital footprint

Report: hacking is the source of most security breaches

The recent email breach that’s filling Inboxes with junk mail got a lot of attention, but there are dozens of other breaches that never top the headlines. The Identity Theft Resource Center analyzed the breaches through April, not including the most recent email breach, and found hacking accounts for the largest number of breaches.  Almost 37% were due to malicious attacks on  computer systems.

The ITRC points out consumers can’t do much to control these breaches.  It’s up to the company safeguarding our information.  We count on them to institute strong policies and hire trustworthy employees.

According to the ITRC, 53.6% of all breaches were business related.  The following categories all saw drops in reported breaches: banking/credit/financial, educational, government/military, and medical/healthcare.

Since we can’t do much about these breaches, we need to be more selective in who  we give our information.  The email breach is a wakeup call to all of us. Good thing it was just our email that was stolen, and not something more sensitive that could wreak financial harm.

Tips to protect your identity:
1. Give your personal information only to people you trust
2. Don’t give your social security number (even to your doctor) unless it’s absolutely necessary
3. Check your annual credit report
4. Don’t forget about the other 9 consumer reports that you can obtain for free once a year
5. Erase your digital footprint by browsing privately and erasing cookies when your session is complete
6. Establish a secure connection (https) when you bank online or log into social networks like Facebook and Twitter
7. Don’t give personal information on your Facebook profile (address, phone number, and even complete date of birth)
8. Get rid of junk email
9.  Get rid of junk mail
10. Shred everything and anything with your name, address, or other personal information on it

Getting rid of junk mail

My mailbox is filling up with credit card offers again. They’re not what they used to be as the 0% balance transfer offers now have hefty transfer fees attached to the promotion. It seems every week I get a credit card offer from an airline through their rewards program. I don’t even open those anymore, because most of them have fees attached to them. I don’t care if the annual membership fee is waived the first year.  I’m not paying to earn rewards even if they are a little better than the rewards I have for free.

So, what can you do to get rid of all this junk mail? There are a few things that will help. I had two families test these methods a few years ago, and they both saw a reduction in mail.

First, stop pre-approved credit offers by opting out. Call 1-888-5-OPTOUT.  You can also opt out online by clicking here.  When you opt out online, the opt out will last for five years.   If you want to permanently opt out, you need to mail in a form that you can find online on the website above.   If you opt out, and want to opt back in so you can get competitive credit or insurance offers you can opt back in online.

You will have to give your social security number because your social is linked to your credit score.  Someone asked me a few weeks ago why the service can’t just use your address. While it seems like it would work, addresses change so often it would be hard to guarantee the opt out for several years, and it’s not your address but your social that definitively links you to the pre-approved credit offers.

Secondly, sign up for the DMA Choice Mail Preference Service. This will get you off direct marketing mail lists like catalogs, magazines, etc.  You can enroll online or by mail. The mail option will cost $1.

Then, sit back and wait. Within six to eight weeks, you should begin to notice less mail.   DMA can take ninety days to take effect.

After three months have passed, begin saving any junk mail that’s slipping through the cracks. If it really bothers you, call that company and request that your name be removed from their mailing list. In not time, you’ll have no junk mail.

It sound like a great thing. What consumer doesn’t want less junk mail, and less mail to shred?  Believe it or not this is a controversial subject. There are campaigns to make it easier to stop unwanted mail through a do not mail registry.  It would work similar to the do not call list.  ForestEthics leads the Do Not Mail campaign, and estimates 30% of delivered mail is junk.  Campaigns have popped up to counter this effort including Mail Moves America.

For the groups against national do not mail efforts, it all comes down to job loss. Mail Moves America estimates 3.5 million jobs are tied to advertising mail.  Mail Moves America believes there are already enough free options, and a national initiative is not needed.

For now, the decision is up to you. If you want to reduce the amount of mail arriving at your home, take a few easy steps to say no to the junk.

Related story you may like:
Making sure your good name doesn’t end up on a sucker list

Related links you may like:
Reducing junk email
Does the do not call list expire?

New ways to erase your digital footprint

The Federal Trade Commission testified before a Senate Hearing on digital privacy.  As I exposed in a November report on your digital footprint, the FTC called online tracking “invisible” to the consumer.

The FTC is pushing for a universal Do Not Track option for browsing. Right now, browsers are introducing their own, individual do not track options that go by a variety of names. Your opt in or opt out options vary by browser based on the system they are using.

While the browsers are making great strides, more work needs to be done to make the options consistent and easy to use. I know a bit about this topic, but some of the current options are difficult to understand. They utilize different tools to make the system work, and some of the mechanics of it are technically advanced.

To learn about simple, easy ways to protect your identity online read my report on NewsChannel 5.

Erase your digital footprint

This is one of the more eye-opening pieces I did this year, and it involves the digital footprint we all leave behind when we browse online. The good news — the solution is simple.

Security experts say the technology that makes our browsing experience exciting, also makes it risky.  Websites form a profile of you based on the sites you visit. They track this information with “cookies.” The problem is, these cookies leave behind crumbs and it’s these crumbs that can cause damage if they end up in the wrong hands.

We had security company, SecureState, analyze an average computer user’s system. Based on her browsing history, they found enough information to steal the woman’s identity. Click the video player below to see what we found.  

Click here for instructions to browse privately with Internet Explorer

Click here for instructions to browse privately with Firefox

Click here for instructions to browse privately with Safari

Click here for instructions to browse privately with Google Chrome

–Instructions courtesy of SecureState

Click here for more tips to protect yourself

Phony debt collectors still a problem

 A month after NewsChannel 5 warned you about phony debt collectors, the Cleveland Better Business Bureau issued a warning to consumers. These phony debt collectors are making the rounds, because it’s been a national problem for some time. It appears Cleveland is still a target for now. 

If you’re not paying attention, it’s easy to fall for the phony debt collector. Consumers report that the caller knows the last four digits of their social security number and their place of employment.

The BBB says the individual they heard from received multiple calls as late as 10:00 PM and the scammers called the individual’s place of employment.

With the extensive personal information that is known, it appears there was some sort of data breach. The consumer who called 5 On Your Side got a call about a payday loan. He’s used these loans in the past, and the caller knew the company.

For my NewsChannel 5 story, I repeatedly called the company in question but never got a response. My question — why weren’t consumers notified? The company posted an alert on its website, but it wasn’t something past customers would see.

Most of the time when there is a breach of some kind, you are alerted by mail that your information was compromised. You’re usually told the extent of the breach including what information they got. Was enough stolen to steal your identity?

In this case, there wasn’t enough information stolen to steal someone’s identity but it’s still frightening. Consumers who get these calls should still be vigilant, because the basic personal information the phony debt collector has can be used to gather more information whether you give it up on the phone call or not.

Click here to read my full story.

Click here to read questions the FTC says you should be asking before paying a debt.