How Vulnerable Are You to Identity Theft?


By Joanie Ogg CTC, MCC

Many of you, like Tom and I, work from your home. We enjoy a double blessing as we either work from our home in San Diego, or our home in Punta Mita. We have systems in place and feel that we have done the right things to protect ourselves from fraud or identity theft. However, we recently experienced mailbox theft in our California home and needless to say we are feeling pretty vulnerable right now. Sure, we are doing what we need to so that this type of theft will not happen again, but it makes you think what’s next that we perhaps are not even aware is a threat could be making it’s way into our personal finances. Read on to learn from our experience and please feel free to share any tips and suggestions of things you do to protect yourselves by logging into the TravelProfessionalCommunity.com and sharing your thoughts with your peers.

I received a call from Bank of America asking me to immediately call them as there appeared to be possible fraud that had recently taken place with one of our accounts. This message was a voicemail on our home phone. The first thing that alarmed me was the word fraud and the second being that we do not bank with or have any accounts at Bank of America. I wanted to be prepared when I returned the call as to be honest with you, we get so many telemarketing calls and messages that I am often unwilling to even return calls. I checked our banking records and credit card accounts to be sure that we did not in fact have a Bank of America account. After much searching to my surprise I found a credit card account with AAA Southern California that was apparently a Bank of America account. I use that card one time per year and that is to pay my AAA yearly membership. The sticker to activate the card was still on the card!

Having the information in my hand I then returned the call to the 800 number, only to wait on hold for about 40-minutes. This is probably why we never liked to bank with Bank of America in the first place. After some lovely music and recordings an agent came on the line and offered to assist me. After another 40-minutes, she advised me that someone by the name of Andy Alvarez had written a check against this account for $427.00 and had forged my name. He had made it payable to himself and endorsed the back of the check. I was in awe….how did he get a check in the first place. I do not even have checks on that account.

Here is where the vulnerability comes in. You know all those checks you get in the mail from your credit cards that you can use to transfer balances, etc., well those certainly make you vulnerable I have discovered. Mr. Alvarez apparently stole mail from our mailbox in front of our home and used the check to get himself some cash. To make it even scarier is that he cashed it at a local Bank of America branch and they cashed it for him!

The credit card company assured me that we were not responsible for the amount, however it really got me thinking about how vulnerable we really are to possible fraud and identity theft. All I can think about is how many other things he stole from our mailbox that I never knew was even sent to me. We have since purchased a locking mailbox as one step in our attempt to take control of our vulnerability.

This incident left me thinking about my client’s security and how responsible I was for it, should something be breeched. I started to read about it and here are some interesting facts that I can share. We can choose to ignore the responsibility and figure it will never happen to us, or we can use caution. Working from home offers freedom and flexibility, but it also opens the door to data breaches that can jeopardize your client relationships—and your bottom line. Identity Theft 911 CEO Matthew Cullina discusses how to enjoy the benefits of home-based work while protecting data integrity and safety.

The simple facts are, whether telecommuting for your corporate job, selling homemade crafts online, practicing law from a spare room or selling travel, you are responsible for protecting the personal information — such as names, addresses, birthdates, and Social Security and credit card numbers — of anyone you do business with.

No matter how small your business, or even if you only occasionally work from home, your clients trust you to protect this data—and legislation in 46 states requires that you do so.

A data breach can happen when we lose a laptop with credit card numbers, a cell phone with the same information, unknowingly download a virus, or even leave open a file drawer containing paper records. Sadly, the possibilities of this happening are not uncommon.

What should you as a business do in the event you discover this has taken place?

Notify your clients whose information has been compromised immediately. They trust you to manage their information and you must let them know and assist with rectifying the situation as best you can.

What can you do to prevent the occurrence?

  1. Make attempts to separate your personal and professional lives. Some people swear by using two computers, one for personal and one for business. However, this is not realistic for many of us. We often travel and do business on the road, making carrying two computers a challenge at best. The reasoning behind it would be to not use your work computer for personal email, online shopping, Facebook or other activities that might invite hackers. However, it is really important to keep your computer dedicated to you and not allow family and friends to have access unless they work for you. Make sure they understand what’s at stake and how easy it is to accidentally reveal sensitive information.
  2. Look at the information and data that you keep for your clients and safely purge everything you do not need with a paper shredder. If this information is on your computer, consider a file shredder program to erase those files.
  3. Take what’s left and lock it up: Paper files can’t be password-protected, so they’re particularly vulnerable—keep them, as well as external hard drives and computers, in locked cabinets or rooms.
  4. Try to keep desktops, laptops, ipads, smart phones and all other technology tools secure and up-to-date.
  5. Passwords… gotta love em. I swear they are the curse of security but without them, where would we be. Make all attempts to use what are known as “strong” passwords with numbers, symbols, and characters; firewalls; antivirus, anti-spyware and anti-malware programs.
  6. Use the latest operating system and always make sure to download recent security updates and patches. This in itself can be a weekly task!
  7. Here is the one that I have trouble with. It is suggested that we avoid using wireless networking. That is a very hard one to adhere to. Experts recommend using a mobile broadband plan with a trusted service provider. I’m just passing on what I have learned…just saying.
  8. In the event that you need to process credit card transactions, try to use an application that is fully compliant with current regulations. It is also a good idea to check the customer ratings. We are often using vendors for payments of credit cards and this can be scary if the vendor is in question. Carefully research their conditions and privacy terms. Remember, these are YOUR clients you are protecting and yourselves.

Experts say that it is likely impossible to be totally protected in today’s changing world from some type of threat or breach. However, you can be aware and prepared to some degree.

Take some time online and research state laws that apply to your business and where your customers reside. You might consider checking with your insurance carrier to ask about data-breach coverage and cyber-liability options.

Take care to protect yourself, your business and your clients and if something compromising does occur, act fast and confidently to maintain their trust and faith in you.