The time for credit card security reform is now – National Consumers League

During the busiest shopping time of the year – the period between Thanksgiving and Christmas – Target, one of America’s largest retailers, suffered the second biggest data breach in U.S. history as 40 million credit and debit cards were compromised. 

Americans assume that when they shop their personal financial information will be kept private and away from identity thieves. Unfortunately, that is not always the case evidenced by the more than 4,000 data breaches that have been reported since 2005, an average of more than one a day over the last nine years.

Consumer advocates hope that the scale of the Target data breach will serve as the impetus for much needed credit card security reform. The time for change is now. Although consumer’s financial information will never be 100% secure, there are things that can be done. Retailers can use advanced encryption technology and more secure firewalls. Credit card companies can encourage the use of “Chip and PIN” technology in their credit cards. Our politicians can pass legislation establishing a national data breach notification standard and urge the Obama Administration to explore incentives and penalties to encourage private sector businesses to better protect consumer data. These changes will not happen without pressure from consumers.

This week, a group of Democratic Senators requested that the Senate banking Committee hold hearings to examine cybersecurity practices. The letter, written by Senators Robert Menendez (D-NJ), Mark Warner (D-VA), and Charles Schumer (D-NY) stated, “We believe it would be valuable for the Committee to examine whether market participants are taking all appropriate actions to safeguard consumer data and protect against fraud, identity theft, and other harmful consequences, and whether we need stronger industry-wide cybersecurity standards.”

Changing and improving security standards will inevitably cost time and money. No one wants to foot the bill for needed innovations. Our lawmakers must capitalize on the current consumer awareness of the need for better cybersecurity and hold a congressional hearing to determine how businesses can better protect consumer data.

Parents: Take control over your children’s use of technology – National Consumers League

From smart phones to tablet computers, to the hundreds of channels and thousands of on-demand video offerings on TV, consumers have never had more options for how to spend their time. For parents, however, the amount of content that is out there can often lead to anxiety – about what their children watch on TV, what Web sites they are visiting and who they are talking to from behind all those electronic screens. So what’s a concerned parent to do?

To address this issue, many communications carriers have created technology that gives parents control over their kids’ use of their devices and services. “Parental control technology” describes a wide variety of software and hardware solutions that parents and caregivers can use to restrict the content their children can access and the people they can communicate with.

The challenge is that, depending on the technology, medium, and service provider, parental control options vary quite a bit, so finding the most effective way to protect your children from adult content you’d rather not let them access can be tough.

To address this, NCL has created a new series of articles to help consumers navigate the landscape of parental control technology and find the options that are best for their families.

Best practices

Parents often worry that, compared to their tech-savvy teens and pre-teens, they have little hope of keeping up with their use of technology. The truth is you don’t have to be a computer or technical expert to prevent your young ones from accessing content that you deem inappropriate. Here are some basic rules of the road to keep your kids safe online.

  • Talk to your children so they know what is acceptable, what sites you want them to stay away from, and who they are allowed to text, for example. This will help both you and your and children start a dialogue about safe use of technology.
  • Find out where they’re hanging out online. Get familiar with the Web sites your child or teen visits. Have them show you their favorite sites and discuss what they like about them.
  • Make sure your children understand that they should never give out identifying information about themselves, friends, or family members. This includes names, addresses, phone numbers, where you work, email addresses, passwords, social security numbers, and credit card numbers.
  • Create a technology “inventory.” Parents should know what technologies their children are using and what those devices are capable of. For example, does the families’ cable television service include on-demand content (potentially with access to adult programming)? Do the children’s cell phones include an Internet browsing capability? Are parental controls on the Internet browser’s software enabled?
  • Set up your computer in a central, open location, like the living room or kitchen, so Internet use can be supervised.
  • Create a family agreement for Internet use that includes items such as hours of use, what sites can be accessed, and what sites are off-limits.
  • Tell your children that if someone they are talking to online harasses, bullies, or makes them uncomfortable in any way, they should talk to a parent, teacher, or an adult they trust.

Every family is unique. We all have our own set of criteria for what we are comfortable with. Not all of these suggestions will apply to your family situation, and they are not intended to be a complete list of all available options. Hopefully, this can at least serve as a starting point to begin a conversation about safe practices for going online, watching TV, and connecting with others.

Parental controls and wireless phones

Many parents have come to the decision that their kids need access to wireless phones – for safety and peace of mind. Luckily, most carriers offer a variety of helpful features that give parents and caregivers a say in what their children see and do with their souped-up phones.

The use and accessibility of smartphones has skyrocketed in recent years, as more and more Americans now turn their wireless device to access the Internet. The ability to immediately access the Internet while on the go marks an important shift in the way we log on, and parents often worry that smartphones are just another way for their young ones to access inappropriate content, connect with strangers, and make unauthorized purchases—all while outside of the home. Luckily, most carriers offer a variety of helpful features that give parents and caregivers a say in what their children see and do with their souped-up phones.

Purchase blocker: prevents users from making purchases that are direct-billed to the account holder, such as ringtones, downloads, applications and games.

Content filters: Similar to blocking sites and services on your home computer, many wireless carriers offer content filtering features that help block access to mobile sites with mature content as well as filter out inappropriate sites from search results. Some carriers, such as Verizon, have created their own rating system of mobile content. Verizon offers three content settings: appropriate for ages seven and up, 13 and up, and 17 and up. These three setting are all easy to change and reset as your child grows and matures.

Usage restrictions: allow parents to set caps on the number of text messages or downloads allowed over a set period, as well as restrict when the phone can be used, who can be called or texted, and what kinds of content can be accessed online. Other restriction features include the ability to set a dollar limit on monthly downloadable purchases, selecting the amount of web browsing/data usage allowed per billing cycle, and creating lists of pre-approved “favorites” and blocked numbers for you child’s phone.

When your child begins to approach the monthly text, download, or talking limits, companies like AT&T will send an advance warning. Once a limit is reached, there will be a notification that the action is restricted and that the service will be stopped until the start of the next usage period. Depending on your wireless carrier, some of these features may cost a small monthly fee.

Family location services: Worried about where your kids are? Almost all major wireless carriers provide a tracking service that lets you know where your family members are. Using your phone or home computer to log on, you can set up certain boundaries for where you expect your child will be. When they move outside the arranged area with their phone, you can receive text or email alerts. You can also receive daily notifications at set times, assuring you that your child arrived home safely after school or other activities. All carries charge an extra monthly fee for this tracking service.

To find more about what options are available on your plan and carrier, contact your wireless service provider directly. For more general information on wireless parental controls, visit the Online Mom.

From phones to TV and computers, make sure your young ones understand that parental controls are not about punishment—they’re about safety. Talk to them about the importance of using the web responsibly instead of simply implementing tough restrictions. Teaching your kids about online safety can be a great opportunity to discuss good decision-making and time management skills. The Internet is an incredible tool that offers an amazing wealth of information and ideas. Go explore!

What are your kids watching?

Many shows on television, whether on broadcast or cable networks, are for adult eyes only. Like with their use of the Internet, there are a variety of different ways you can keep your children from stumbling across explicit or violent content.

Many shows on television, whether on broadcast or cable networks, are for adult eyes only. Like with their use of the Internet, there are a variety of different ways you can keep your children from stumbling across explicit or violent content.


As parents are well aware, the Internet isn’t the only place where kids can be exposed to inappropriate content. Many shows on television, whether on broadcast or cable networks, are for adult eyes only. Like the Internet, there are a variety of different ways you can keep your children from stumbling across explicit or violent content.

Since 2000, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has required that all televisions larger than 13 inches be equipped with what’s called a V-chip. A V-chip lets parents and caregivers block programming that they don’t want children to watch. All television programs are assigned a rating according to a system established by the television industry, which appears onscreen during the first 15 seconds of the program. The rating is encoded with the program before it airs. Parents can use their television set’s remote control to program the V-chip to block programs that carry certain ratings. The current rating system deems what’s appropriate as follows:

  • TV-Y: All children.
  • TV-Y7: Children 7 and up.
  • TV-G: General audience – suitable for children and adults.
  • TV-PG: Parental guidance suggested – violence, sexual situations, coarse language and/or suggestive dialogue.
  • TV-14: Parents strongly cautioned – intense violence, sexual situations, coarse language and/or suggestive dialogue.
  • TV-MA: Mature Audience Only – graphic violence, explicit sexual content and/or offensive language.

For more information on the V-chip, including specific instructions on how to program your V-chip at home, visit the FCC guide by clicking here.

Cable and satellite TV programming

If your family has cable television, you have even more options on how to block access to programs you deem too mature for young eyes. Almost all cable and satellite providers give you an option of creating a PIN you can use to block programs in three different ways:

  • by channel
  • by rating
  • by time period

Depending on your service provider, you may also have the option of blocking specific programs (by date, time, and channel), adult titles in programming guides, and movies that receive certain MPAA ratings on premium movie channels.

For example, Verizon FIOS TV and AT&T U-verse allow users to

  • Selectively block programming by channel or rating.
  • Selectively block Pay-Per-View and On Demand purchases.
  • Set up user-defined PINs (to purchases and block programs.)
  • Hide adult programming from the TV Listings.

For more detailed information, visit the National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s site on getting started with parental controls.

Managing where they are surfing

The Internet is a powerful learning tool. It provides a world of information that is instantly available 24/7. However, the wide-ranging and anonymous nature of the Internet brings with it risks—from explicit or inappropriate content to predators lurking in chat rooms and using instant messaging services. Due to the Web’s potential dangers, many service providers offer free tools and software to help restrict certain types of content and features to keep young Web users safe.

Internet service providers (ISPs)

Web providers like Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast offer such free parental control features as the ability to:

  • Get a Web activity report that shows you all the Web sites your children visit or attempt to visit. You can check out the sites your kids have visited and block specific sites or types of sites you don’t want them going back to.
  • Create unique profiles for different family members with individualized online usage limits. This can be useful if you have children of different ages. One master account can be used to manage the settings of several “subordinate” account users.
  • Block access to certain Web tools such as instant messaging, gaming, chat rooms, and message boards, allowing parents to keep better track of what their children are saying and to whom.
  • Remotely manage your account with the ability to change parental control settings from any computer with Web access, whether in or outside the home.
  • View your child’s online activities as they happen with real-time Web tracking features
  • Allow young Web users to request permission to visit unauthorized Web sites for an adult to approve.
  • Receive a tamper controls alert if someone other than you tries to change the control settings.
  • Set up a timer that limits the amount of time users can spend online.
  • View search monitoring results that track the words and phrases your children search for online to help learn about what they are interested in. This way you can find out if they are trying to seek out blocked or inappropriate content.

To get more detailed information about exactly what controls are available to you, and what the system requirements are, the best bet is to contact your service provider directly. To lean more about the different Internet provider options, visit the Safe Families site here.

Internet browsers and search engines

While Internet service providers offer a variety of great parental control options, you can also set up similar controls on the Web browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Safari, Google Chrome, etc.) level. Most browsers let you restrict access to certain sites or pre-approve a list of sites your child has the ability to access. For example:

  • Safari users can create child user accounts that let you choose between three levels of Internet access:
    1. give your children unrestricted access to all sites
    2. a setting that only blocks access to certain restricted sites
    3. an option that only lets children access sites you that you have pre-selected. Email and chat features can be set up so that young users can only chat and email with contacts you know and trust. Weekday and weekend computer time limits can be put in place as well.
  • Firefox and Chrome have no built-in parental control features. But, if your computer uses one of these browsers, you can download extensions such as ProCon (which blocks accidental visits to adult sites), LeechBlock (which sets up time limits for different users), and FoxFilter (which blocks content based on user-defined criteria). To learn more about different extension options, click here.
  • Search engines like Google and Bing have “safe search” settings that screens for sites that contain explicit sexual content and deletes them from your search results. This can be a great option since kids often stumble upon inappropriate content by accident when searching seemingly innocent terms.

This is not an exhaustive list of the available browser and search options, but is intended to give you an idea of the types of useful features that are available. At the very least, almost all browsers will give you the option of blocking access to restricted sites, whether it’s a feature that’s available out of the box, or if it’s an extension you have to download.

Social networking security and safety tips – National Consumers League

Social networking sites enable people to post information about themselves and communicate with others around the world. While you can make new friends through social networking sites, you may also be exposed to embarrassing situations and people who have bad intentions, such as hackers, identity thieves, con artists, and predators.

Protect yourself by taking some common-sense precautions.

  • Guard your financial and other sensitive information. Never provide or post your Social Security number, address, phone number, bank account or credit card numbers, or other personal information that could be used by criminals.
  • Picture social networking sites as billboards in cyberspace. Police, college admissions personnel, employers, stalkers, con artists, nosy neighbors – anyone can see what you post. Don’t disclose anything about yourself, your friends, or family members that you wouldn’t want to be made public. And remember that once information appears on a Web site, it can never be completely erased. Even if it’s modified or deleted, older versions may exist on others’ computers. Some social networking sites allow users to restrict access to certain people. Understand how the site works and what privacy choices you may have.
  • Be cautious about meeting your new cyber friends in person. After all, it’s hard to judge people by photos or information they post about themselves. If you decide to meet someone in person, do so during the day in a public place, and ask for information that you can verify, such as the person’s place of employment. 
  • Think twice before clicking on links or downloading attachments in emails. They may contain viruses or spyware that could damage your computer or steal your personal information – including your online passwords and account numbers. Some messages may “spoof,” or copy the email addresses of friends to fool you into thinking that they’re from them. Don’t click on links or download attachments in emails from strangers, and if you get an unexpected message from someone whose address you recognize, check with them directly before clicking on links or attachments.
  • Protect your computer. A spam filter can help reduce the number of unwanted emails you get. Anti-virus software, which scans incoming messages for troublesome files, and anti-spyware software, which looks for programs that have been installed on your computer and track your online activities without your knowledge, can protect you from online identity theft. Firewalls prevent hackers and unauthorized communications from entering your computer – which is especially important if you have a broadband connection because your computer is open to the Internet whenever it’s turned on. Look for programs that offer automatic updates and take advantage of free patches that manufacturers offer to fix newly discovered problems. Go to or to learn more about how to keep your computer secure.
  • Beware of con artists. Criminals scan social networking sites to find potential victims for all sorts of scams, from phony lotteries to bogus employment and business opportunities to investment fraud. In some cases they falsely befriend people and then ask for money for medical expenses or other emergencies, or to come to the United States from another country. Go to to learn more about how to recognize different types of Internet fraud.

Protect your privacy, safety, and security online – National Consumers League

Computers and the Internet have changed our lives in many ways: how we keep in touch, learn, work, shop, pay bills, and even keep track of our accounts. But with the advantages come risks; your computer contains sensitive information, and it’s up to you to protect it!

  • Install anti-virus and anti-spyware software to protect against malicious programs that may be planted in emails, documents, or Web sites – programs that can damage your computer, capture information such as your passwords, or cause other harm. Set them to run automatically and update them regularly.
  • Use a strong firewall to keep intruders out of your computer.
  • Patch it up! Keep your software current with the free patches offered by manufacturers to fix flaws. If your system automatically notifies you about new patches or security upgrades, don’t delay — download them immediately.
  • Keep a lid on your personal information. Only provide your passwords, account numbers, or answers to security questions when you are sure who you’re dealing with and why they need the info. Talk to your kids about privacy and monitor their online activities. Take advantage of parental controls that software manufacturers and Internet service providers may offer.
  • Don’t click on links in emails asking for your personal information. They may lead you to fake versions of legitimate Web sites, where criminals hope you’ll hand over your personal information.
  • Never enter your information in a pop-up screen. They may be planted on legitimate Web sites by identity thieves.

Think you’ve been a victim of ID theft? – National Consumers League

It’s frightening to lose your wallet or discover that someone has used information about you for a fraudulent purpose. Don’t panic — help is available. You will need to remain calm, cool, and collected as you go through the process of resolving the problem.Know that ID theft is a crime.

The federal government and many states have enacted specific laws against ID theft.

You can get detailed advice by calling the Federal Trade Commission’s ID Theft Clearinghouse toll-free at 877-438-4338 or going to You can also provide information about your problem, which will help law enforcement agencies investigate and track ID theft. The FTC will send you a free booklet, “ID Theft: When Bad Things Happen To Your Good Name,” or you can get it online. There are other steps that you might want to take right away.

If you believe that someone is using your identity illegally, report the crime to a law enforcement agency. It isn’t always possible for agencies to investigate every case, but making an official “identity theft report” can help you solve problems resulting from the ID theft. The “identity theft report” must be a document that subjects the person filing it to criminal penalties for providing false information. This is intended to discourage people from filing phony reports to try to avoid paying legitimate debts, not to prevent legitimate ID theft victims from reporting the crimes. You can report the crime to:

  • The police department where the theft occurred
  • Your local police
  • A state or federal agency, including the U.S. Postal Inspection Service (do not use a complaint to the FTC as an official identity theft report).

When a financial account is involved, contact the bank immediately. If your credit card, debit card, ATM card, or checks have been lost or stolen, or if you suspect that someone has obtained your account number for fraudulent purposes, inform the financial institution promptly and ask what you need to do to protect your money.

Know your payment rights. Under federal law, you are not responsible for more than $50 if someone uses your credit card without authorization, and most issuers will remove the charges completely if you report the problem as soon as you discover it. While your losses could be greater if someone uses your debit card, the card issuer may have a policy that offers you more protection than federal law provides. You can contest checks that have been used with your forged signature or unauthorized withdrawals from your bank account.

Respond quickly to debt collectors. If debt collectors contact you about accounts opened in your name or unauthorized charges made to your existing accounts, respond immediately in writing, keeping a copy of your letter. Explain why you don’t owe the money and enclose copies of any supporting documents, such as an official identity theft report. You have the right to ask the debt collector for the name of the business that is owed the debt and the amount owed. And you have the right to ask that business for copies of the credit applications or other documents relating to any transactions that you believe were made by the ID thief.

Put a fraud alert in your credit files. This will oblige creditors to take extra precautions if someone applies for credit in your name to verify that it’s really you. There are two kinds of fraud alerts. An “initial fraud alert” does not require you to provide a copy of an official “identity theft report” and stays on your credit records for at least 90 days. This is the kind of alert to use if you think you might be a victim but you’re not sure – for instance, if you lost your wallet or you find out that someone has gotten access to the customer records at a place you do business. An “extended fraud alert” should be placed when you have reason to believe that someone has illegally used your identity. You must provide a copy of an official “identity theft report” to request an extended fraud alert, which will stay on your credit records for 7 years. If you put an initial fraud alert on your files, you can always request an extended alert later if the situation warrants it. Just contact one of the three major credit bureaus to place the fraud alert; it will be shared automatically with the other two: Equifax, 800-525-6285, TDD 800-255-0056,; Experian, 888-397-3742, TDD 800-972-0322,; TransUnion, 800-680-7289, TDD 877-553-7803,

Get free copies of your credit reports. When you file a fraud alert, the credit bureaus will contact you with information about how to get free copies of your credit reports. If you filed an initial fraud alert, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report from each of the bureaus. If you filed an extended alert, you will be able to get two copies from each of the bureaus, one right away and the other within 12 months. This will help you monitor your account for problems. Since the information at the credit bureaus may be different, be sure to get your reports from all three.

Follow the instructions to dispute any accounts you didn’t open, charges you didn’t make, or other information that isn’t accurate. Be specific about any information that you believe is the result of the ID theft. You can permanently block that information from your credit files; you will be asked for a copy of your official identity theft report to do so. As with fraud alerts, you only need to report problems with your credit reports to one of the bureaus, and it will share that information with the other two (see contact information above).

Keep checking your credit report regularly. A new federal law entitles all consumers to ask each of the three major credit bureaus for free copies of their reports once in every 12-month period. This free annual report program started in late 2004 and is being phased in gradually across the country, from West to East. Go to or call 877-382-4357 for more details and to see when you can make your requests. You don’t have to ask all three credit bureaus for your reports at the same time; you can stagger your requests if you prefer. Do not contact the credit bureaus directly for these free annual reports. They are only available by calling 877-322-8228 or going to You can make your requests by phone or online, or download a form to mail your requests.

Your state law may also entitle you to free credit reports. Ask your local consumer protection or state attorney general’s office. Any rights your state law gives you are in addition to your rights under federal law.

Be cautious about offers for credit monitoring services. Why pay extra for them when you can get your credit reports for free or very cheap? Read the description of the services carefully. Unless you’re a victim of serious and ongoing identity theft, buying a service that alerts you to certain activities in your credit files probably isn’t worthwhile, especially if it costs hundreds of dollars a year. You can purchase copies of your credit reports anytime for about $9 through the bureaus’ Web sites or by phone: Equifax, 800-685-111; Experian, 800-311-4769; TransUnion, 800-888-4213.

Protect your identity – National Consumers League

How would you feel if you were stopped for a traffic violation and suddenly found yourself being handcuffed and taken to jail for a crime you never committed? Or if you got a nasty call from a collection agency for a car loan you never had? Or if your application for a home mortgage was turned down because of information in your credit report about overdue bills on accounts you never opened?These are situations you could face as a victim of identity theft. While ID theft can take many complex forms, the essence of this crime is simple—someone steals personal information about you to use for fraudulent purposes.

ID theft can happen to anyone. By guarding your personal information carefully, you can reduce the likelihood of becoming a victim. But you may not be able to avoid ID theft entirely; it can happen in ways beyond your control. Businesses, government agencies, and organizations that obtain personal information also have a responsibility to handle it carefully and keep it secure.

If you do become a victim of ID theft, there is help available to guide you step-by-step through the procedures that you will need to take to resolve the problem.

Avoid falling victim to identity theft by following this routine:

  • Check credit reports annually and before major purchases.
  • Check bank and credit card statements regularly and report unauthorized transactions immediately.
  • Carry only the credit cards, checks and identification you need.
  • Safeguard your Social Security Number.
  • Don’t give out personal information unless you know the recipient.
  • Pick up receipts from ATMs, restaurants, and stores.
  • Protect your Personal Identification Numbers and never carry them with you.
  • Use strong passwords to protect sensitive information. Don’t use information like birthdays or pets’ names.
  • Shred important documents before discarding them.
  • Destroy expired or unneeded cards.
  • Keep firewall, anti-virus, anti-spam and anti-spyware software current on your computer. Don’t respond to requests for personal information from unsolicited email or pop-ups.

Stop calling me! Remove your name from marketing lists – National Consumers League

Are you inundated with junk mail? There are ways consumers can remove their names from marketing lists – and avoid getting on them in the first place.

Are you inundated with junk mail? There are ways consumers can remove their names from marketing lists – and avoid getting on them in the first place.

  • Don’t provide information that isn’t necessary for the transaction. Don’t just fill in the blanks without thinking about whether you want to limit the information you supply.
  • Be anonymous. Consider using online tools and fictitious names in situations where your real identity isn’t needed and there is no other option to avoid getting on marketing lists.
  • Think twice before entering contests. Entry forms are often used to build marketing lists.
  • Know the privacy policy. If you don’t see anything about what personal information companies collect and how they use it, ask.
  • Understand your privacy choices. If there is no privacy policy or it doesn’t allow you to avoid unwanted marketing, take your business elsewhere.
  • Know when your personal information is being collected. Be aware of Automatic Number Identification and other ways that your information may be collected and tell the company if you don’t want to be put on a marketing list.
  • Understand that unlisted and unpublished phone numbers don’t guaranty privacy. Marketers may get your number if you’ve given it to others or they may simply dial you randomly.
  • Know your telemarketing rights. Federal law allows you to tell marketers not to call you again. Check with your state attorney general’s office to find out if you also have “Do Not Call” rights under state law.
  • Know your financial privacy rights. Federal law requires financial institutions to tell you what information they collect and how they use it, and allows you to request that your personal information not be shared with unrelated companies. Check with your state attorney general’s office to find out if you also have financial privacy rights under state law.
  • Know your medical privacy rights. Federal regulations limit how your health information can be used and shared with others for marketing purposes. Check with your state attorney general’s office to find out if you also have medical privacy rights under state law.
  • Your state may protect you against “spam.” Some states have enacted laws about unsolicited emails. Check with your state attorney general’s office.

Get off the lists!

Contact the major credit Bureaus. Call (888) 567-8688 to get off marketing lists for preapproved credit and insurance offers with all of the major credit bureaus (this does not affect your ability to apply for credit or insurance).

Contact the Direct Marketing Association. Get off the mailing, telemarketing and/or email lists of many major marketers:

Removal from mailing lists – write to: Mail Preference Service P.O. Box 9008 Farmingdale, NY 11735-9008 Or visit:

Removal from phone lists – write to:
Telephone Preference Service
P.O. Box 9014
Farmingdale, NY 11735-9014
(include your phone number)

Or visit:

Removal from email lists – visit:

Six tips for beefing up your computer’s security – National Consumers League

Computers have revolutionized how we learn, work, shop, pay bills, keep track of our accounts, and communicate with others. Your computer is like your home – it contains sensitive and valuable information, so it’s a good idea to keep it locked and be careful about who you let in.

Intruders lurking in cyberspace or those who have physical access to your computer may try to steal financial information stored in your computer, or use it to attack other computer systems.

Some individuals simply enjoy sending out viruses that can destroy your files and require expensive computer repairs. By taking some basic security steps, you can use your computer with confidence and protect yourself and your personal information from abuse.

Step One: Pick an Effective Password

Passwords are the keys that unlock access to your email, accounts, and other computer activities. They must be chosen to prevent intruders from correctly guessing them based on knowledge about you or cracking them with software programs that try every word in the dictionary until they get a match.

  • Use a combination of letter and numbers.
  • Avoid obvious things such as your birth date.
  • Pick passwords that you can remember.
  • Don’t write passwords down where others may find them.
  • Keep your passwords private and be suspicious of people who ask for them claiming to be from companies that should already have them.

Step Two: Build a Firm Firewall

A firewall is like the fence around a fort – it makes it harder for intruders to get into your computer from cyberspace. This is especially important if you have a high-speed Internet connection through your cable provider or DSL (digital subscriber line), because the doorway from your computer to the Internet is open whenever your computer is on, even if you aren’t doing anything online at that moment.

  • Check to see if your computer hardware or software already has a built-in firewall.
  • If it does, it may be necessary to turn the firewall feature on.
  • If you don’t already have one, you can find free firewall software on the Internet or purchase software.
  • Another option is using an external firewall device that connects to your computer.
  • Firewalls differ, and some can be customized to suit your particular needs, so read the descriptions carefully.

Step Three: Avoid Catching a Computer Virus

Your computer can become infected and infect other computers with viruses that may be planted in emails or attachments to emails, in programs or files that you download, in floppy disks, and even in Web sites that you visit. The first line of defense is an anti-virus program. This is not the same as a firewall – both are needed since they protect you from different types of attacks. You can buy anti-virus software online or in retail stores.

  • Get an anti-virus program that updates itself automatically.
  • Look for programs that can also repair damage caused by a virus.
  • Don’t open email or email attachments unless you expected the message and know who it’s from.
  • Only download files and programs and use disks from sources you know and trust.
  • Don’t forward email warnings about new viruses to your friends – they could be hoaxes designed to spread a virus instead of warn against them.

Step Four: Back It Up

Just as you might use a safe-deposit box to guard valuables, consider safeguarding important items that are in your computer so they won’t be lost if a virus strikes, your computer crashes, or there is some other kind of disaster. Financial records, research, writing, original artwork, and work files that would be difficult to reconstruct or replace should be backed up regularly.

  • Don’t rely on paper copies for things that would require inputting the data all over again, such as computerized check registers.
  • Use floppy disks to back up small files, CDs or removable disk drives for larger files.
  • Some items, such as bank records, should be backed up every time a change is made, while others might require less frequent back-ups.
  • Set schedules for backing up files and stick to them.
  • Store back-ups in a locked, fireproof container.

Step Five: Keep Up to Date

“Hackers” (outsiders who try to get into computers through the Internet) and virus creators are constantly looking for new ways to get around the protections that are put in place to thwart them. To keep your computer secure, you need to keep one step ahead of them.

  • Take advantage of “patches” that your software manufacturers may offer when they discover flaws in their programs that can make them vulnerable to hackers, viruses, and other problems. These can often be downloaded at no charge from the manufacturers’ Web sites.
  • If your anti-virus software doesn’t automatically update itself to detect and stop new viruses, get updated software at least once a year.
  • Update your firewall regularly.

Step Six: Control the Use of Your Computer

If you share your computer with roommates, children, or other users, it’s crucial for everyone to follow the same security rules.

  • Make sure that all users understand the dangers of security breaches and how to avoid them.
  • Turn the computer off when no one is using it.
  • Don’t share passwords that would enable others to get into personal accounts that you may have set up in your computer.
  • Keep the computer in a common area where you can see who is using it and what they’re doing.
  • Instruct all users to tell you immediately if they suspect there is a security problem.

Don’t panic if a security breach occurs. Report viruses and hackers to your Internet service provider (ISP). If you have high-speed Internet access through cable or DSL, unplug the phone or cable line from your computer. Your ISP and software and hardware vendors may offer advice about how to remedy the problem. If you believe that someone has obtained your financial information, contact the financial institution immediately. Try to determine how the security breach occurred so you can strengthen your protection in the future.

Just how private is your personal information? – National Consumers League

The Financial Modernization Act (also called Gramm-Leach-Bliley, or GLB, after the chief sponsors), was supposed to help consumers understand how their banks, insurance companies, and other financial institutions handle personal information and give them some control over its use. Each institution was required to notify its customers about its privacy policy and consumers’ rights by July 1, 2001.

But many of those notices were more confusing than enlightening, and an incorrect email being circulated is making things worse. Now NCL and several other organizations are asking for changes in government regulations to standardize annual GLB privacy notices to clarify them. They also want it to be easier for consumers to exercise their rights under the law.

The most important thing for consumers to know is that financial institutions can share their “nonpublic personal information” (such as credit limits, account balances, or what types of products or services they purchase) with others. If financial institutions want to sell that information to “unaffiliated third parties” (other companies that aren’t legally related to them) they must give customers the right to say no. Advocates argue this right to “opt-out” should be explained in simple language and that consumers need a toll-free number, email, or pre-addressed postcard to respond.

Another point that may be unclear from the notices is that they can “opt-out” any time; GLB set no cut-off date. However, if the financial institution gives a deadline and the customer hasn’t said no by then, the information may be shared. And once someone else has it, it’s impossible to get it back.

Unfortunately, the anonymous email by an unknown author being circulated implies that people must act by July 1, 2001 or their credit information will be released to anyone who requests it. It also incorrectly refers to credit bureaus. Under a different law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act (FCRA), bureaus can only release information to those who have a legitimate need, such as companies from whom consumers are applying for credit, insurance, employment, or rental housing.

Consumers can’t “opt-out” of credit bureaus providing information from their credit files for these purposes. However, the FCRA does give consumers the right to block that information from being provided to lenders and insurers who want to send them offers they never requested. To avoid these “pre-screened” offers, consumers can call a toll-free number operated by the major bureaus, 888-567-8688.