"Okay, so you've heard it before: America, the country that made 'right to privacy' a credo, has lost its privacy to the computer. But it's far worse than you think. Advances in smart data-sifting techniques and the rise of massive databases have conspired to strip you naked. The spread of the Web is the final step. It will make most of the secrets you have more instantly available than ever before, ready to reveal themselves in a few taps on the keyboard."
Q: Which Magazine Carried this Warning?
A. Privacy Times
B. Mother Jones
Answer: If your final answer was that bastion of capitalism, "C.Forbes", you're right! And if the folks at Forbes are this worried about privacy, the rest of us better be worried, too.
1984: Here at Last ... with a Twist
In high school, we all read George Orwell's 1984, and feared the day would come when the government would know our every move. It seems our fears were misplaced.
Driven by marketing strategies and databases chock-full of our personal information, the role of "Big Brother" is now being played by white-collar corporate America. Banks troll for the most profitable customers, insurance companies seek grounds for denying coverage, and list brokers sell our personal info to anyone willing to pay the price.
In binary bits and bytes, corporations update our profiles every time we bank, pay bills, file medical insurance claims, charge something, or visit a Web site. Supermarket scanners record everything we buy. Cell phone companies can instantly locate anyone whose phone is switched on. Electronic toll-booths, On-Star, and other traffic-monitoring systems busily track the movements of our cars. In short, many big brothers are watching - and carefully recording the most private details of our habits, hobbies, hang-ups, and health.
And then there are the computer-savvy identity thieves who ripped off over $437 million in 2003.
What's a Person to Do?!
When shady characters or sophisticated marketers want to dig up your secrets, they can find a way. But why make the job easy? There are lots of actions you can take to help protect your privacy:
1. Check privacy policies before divulging personal information. Sweepstakes forms, warranty cards, and Web site questionnaires/registrations all solicit information that can enrich your "profile." Birth dates, annual income, addresses - even the breed of dog you own - can be valuable. Don't want that info used? Don't share it!
2. Keep your name off marketing lists. Although registering with the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service is often touted as the easy solution to junk mail, it's only a partial fix. To fully stop it, get our booklet, Stop Junk Mail Forever, which tells you exactly who to contact and what to do from here on to keep those unwanted pitches and promos out of your life.
3. Pick up the phone. Consider removing your name from the lists that credit bureaus sell to credit card marketers. It's easy. Just call 888-5-OPTOUT.
4. They hide, so you must seek. Always carefully scrutinize credit card and bank statements, phone bills, etc., looking for unfamiliar charges. Call right away if you find a problem, and follow the instructions the service reps give you for how to straighten things out.
Be smart, and carry a minimum of cards on you - separate from your wallet. When you use a card, focus on what's going on, and put the piece of plastic away asap. (The FTC offers a lot of good advice, including tips for avoiding credit card fraud.)
5. Once a year, at least, get your credit report from one of these three bureaus:
Make sure your credit report includes only authorized activity, but don't panic if you find a mistake. You'll be in good company. Errors serious enough to deny credit occur on three out of every ten reports! Since it often takes a while to get the corrections made, get on the case right away - especially if you think you might want to get a mortgage or car loan any time soon. (Late in 2004, new regulations will allow you to get one free report every year. Until then, your credit report could cost up to $9.)
6. Rip up, don't recycle pre-approved offers for credit cards. Do the same with any other piece of mail that includes financial info. Garbage pickers know that people routinely toss out private documents that contain their Social Security numbers, bank accounts, and other top secret, but highly saleable data.
7. Don't give out your Social Security number to anyone who doesn't have an absolute and legitimate need for it. And never give out personal information unless you've initiated the contact. Identity thieves, often posing as bank or government representatives, ask for account numbers or other information, allegedly to verify this or that. Remember, people who are legitimately calling about your accounts have access to your records.
8. Don't know? Don't trust. Use your credit cards only at Web sites you know and trust, and which have a secure server. Although it's true that liability for misuse of your cards is generally limited to $50, who wants the hassle of dealing with an Internet pirate?
9. Peter Piper picked a pip of a password. Pick passwords that aren't obvious, which means don't use your middle name, a pet's name, or a birthday. That will put one extra layer between your records and someone up to no good. Many experts recommend that you ask to have special, additional passwords placed on your credit card, bank, brokerage, and phone accounts.
10. Spread the wealth. If you don't want financial institutions to be sharing information about you with their affiliates, consider keeping your accounts "unaffiliated." In other words, don't use the insurance company your bank just bought - unless your bank can assure you that it will not share your private info, even with its subsidiaries.
11. Been the victim of identify theft? Take action asap. For starters, go online for some good advice from the Privacy Rights Clearinghouse and the FTC.
12. Keep up on the latest privacy news. The following organizations will clue you in on what's happening, and what you can do about it:
Tip: Forbes, The Economist, and BusinessWeek are also excellent sources for privacy news.
*Marc Eisenson and Nancy Castleman have spent the last 20 years teaching people how to save money, get out of debt, and live better on less. Visit their Web site, http://www.GoodAdvicePress.com, for many samples of their work.
Check out the Good Advice Press Archive for other articles at the Satya Center website.