Paranoia is not education

There’s been a lot of talk going on in the news about identity theft. I understand that this is a terrible crime that can leave a person penniless and in dire financial straits. The main culprit, of course, is the internet. The news reports are full of “Beware of this” and “Beware of that”. My beef, and this is probably something inherent in TV that I have long been immune to is that important information like this is given 30 seconds to 2 minutes on the nightly news. That is not enough time to educate anyone about the dangers of almost anything. The only thing it can do is spread fear, and that is no way to combat a problem.

For example, on NBC’s Today show suggested staying away from any website that asks for any personal information such a mother’s maiden name, etc. Okay, big dumb move. Legit companies like eBay and Amazon.com ask for that kind of information as a security reminder. They’re goal is to press you with information and make is sound as scary as possible. Fear tactics do not make for good consumers.

Here are a few good tactics that they won’t tell you in the news.

1. Get rid of Microsoft Outlook and/or Outlook Express. Hackers and virus writers sometimes specialize in hacking this software. It also has inherent vulnerabilities that make it’s users specially at risk. Get a good email program or service with built in spam blocking. Thunderbird is great, Eudora is good, and Lotus Notes is acceptable.

2. Read Snopes.com and Symantec’s Hoax page, and be aware of able to identify legit email from spam at a glance. No, you have not won a lottery in another country, nor is Bill Gates wanting to send you $50 for forwarding an email. Most importantly, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from the country of Durkadurkastan does not have $3M for you if you help him transfer it to another bank account.

3. Make you password difficult. For example, “L1Qwpp01G5woS” is a good password. It is difficult to remember, but it is also difficult to crack. “jason77” is not a good password, neither is the word “password”. Make your password difficult, write them on 3×5 notecards for safe keeping and lock them up in a filing cabinet or lockbox when you are not using them. No hacker is so good that he can use his computer to look through your locked filing cabinet.

4. Pay your bills online. That’s right, I said it’s okay to make purchases online. If your bank is reputable, then they may offer this service for free or for a small cost. Data encryption in most banks is probably very good. If your local utility companies can take a bank draft, then do it. It will save you time and money in the long run.

5. Learn how to use encryption software. By all means, read up on how to use GnuPG or PGP. This is one powerful tool that can make almost any email program built like a TANK. Is it complicated? vYes it can be, and you might have to learn something new. It is worth it in the end especially if you use programs like Quicken or Microsoft Money. I think I’ll write up a mini howto on how to use it one of these days.

6. Finally, some of the ideas that were posted on some news site isn’t so bad. Owning a shredder is definately a plus, but how about this: Buy an el-cheapo flatbed scanner, scan those old bills that you want to keep to image files, encrypt the files, and save them to CDROM. If the CDROM gets stolen. It’s okay. The encryption that GnuPG and PGP uses is government strength. As long as the hacker doesn’t have you private key AND your password, the data there will do them no good.

You might have to do some research to accomplish some of these tips. You might have to learn something more about computers and the internet. That’s okay. An educated consumer is a safer consumer. Don’t be afraid of the internet. Be smart enough to navigate it safely.

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