TypewriterFrom The Urbach Letter June 2010

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How to Keep Your Private Life Private 15 Minutes of Privacy Cartoon
Not that long ago, it was possible for a person like you to lead a nice, quiet, private life. Once outside a small town, you could go about your business and pursue your personal affairs without leaving “tracks” – permanent records of where you’ve been, who you’ve talked to, and what you own. No longer. Privacy is dead. Now, nearly every detail of our lives is open to discovery, inspection, or in some cases, exploitation by people and organizations with criminal intent. A frighteningly large database of information about you has already been compiled by governmental agencies and private companies – and they’re adding more info to your file every single day. Despite advertisements that proclaim how much they "care" about you, your "friendly" bank, broker, and insurance company may not have your best interests at heart. Information is power; they will use it to derive maximum profitability from their dealings with you... while remaining within some narrow definition of the law. Even worse, there are many opportunities for criminals to access this information in order to cheat and victimize you. You've heard all about the rapidly-growing crime of identity theft – which can only occur when your personal information falls into the wrong hands – and have good reason to be concerned. Fortunately, there are steps you can take to radically lower your risk of being exploited.

Many of the strategies for preventing identity theft and for avoiding telemarketing calls I’ve written about in past issues of The Urbach Letter are also appropriate for protecting your personal privacy. These include:
  • Get on “Do Not Call” lists.

  • Alter your phone directory listing.

  • Restrict access to your Social Security Number.

  • Subscribe to a credit monitoring service.

  • Buy a shredder (cross-cut are best).

  • Limit access to your inbound and outbound postal mail.

  • Physically and electronically secure your computer (very important).

Here are a dozen additional things you can do to protect your privacy. I realize that not all of them will be appropriate for your personal situation, but each one will help lower your profile, and many will have side benefits, like reducing the amount of junk mail clogging your postal mailbox:

1. Check the online directories. Visit the major online phone directories (SuperPages, Bigfoot Whitepages, Addresses.com, etc.) and do a search for yourself. Even if you’re unlisted in the current paper white pages, you’ll often show up in the online directories from prior years’ listings – and you’ll probably be disturbed to see your full address, plus a map with driving directions to your house. Use this link for instructions on how to get yourself unlisted from Google's Phonebook and other online directories: Unlisting Instructions.

2. Opt out whenever you are given the chance. By now you’ve received a privacy statement in all your bank and brokerage statements, insurance premium notices, department store charge card bills, Visa, MasterCard, Amex, Discover bills, etc. They’re all required by law to notify you of their privacy policies and give you the option to restrict how the information they’ve collected about you can be used. But… they don’t have to make it easy! It should just be a checkbox on the reply slip in the payment envelope or an 800 number to call. Instead, in the fine print, you are often instructed to write to a different address, list account numbers, etc. Even though it’s somewhat of a pain, opt out whenever you’re given the opportunity. You’re not being compensated by these companies – who are exploiting your private information – so why in the world would you want to participate in the violation of your personal privacy?

3. Never fill in warranty cards. There is absolutely no reason to fill in the demographic (age, sex, income) or lifestyle fields (preferences, hobbies, interests, pets, etc.). In the vast majority of cases, you do not need to send in the card at all. Your purchase receipt is all that’s needed to make a warranty claim. While it’s true that returning the card with basic “name, rank, and serial number” information will enable the company to notify you about a product recall, this occurs so rarely, it’s ordinarily not an issue. (There are important exceptions like cribs, strollers, bicycles, etc.) However – and I guarantee this – if you supply demographic/lifestyle info, it’s going to be sold to a mailing list company.

4. Google yourself. Type your full name into the search field in quotes (e.g.: “John Jacobsen.”) Please note, if you have a somewhat common name, you’re going to get thousands of matches – and you’ll need to do a more sophisticated search (in combination with other identifying terms like your hometown). If your name is somewhat uncommon (like “Victor Urbach”) you may find a surprising number of “hits” that refer specifically to you. Some people call this exercise a “vanity search” but you may uncover some links that reveal disturbing personal data. You may or may not be able to get these links deleted (and nearly everything on the web is archived to some extent), however, you can still make things more difficult for the bad guys.

5. Avoid "Preferred Customer" clubs. I don't register for any of these "discount programs" at my supermarket, pharmacy, office supply store, etc. It's not so much that I'm concerned my brand preference for laundry detergent or copy paper is being tracked and compiled, I just object on principle – and fear the data gathered will be aggregated with other databases in the future, with unknown consequences. Besides, I find the supposed "specials" not so special, and the "discounts" still available just by saying "no" when the clerk asks, "Do you have a CVS card?" However, please be aware that your purchases can still be tracked if you pay by check or credit card. As usual, for maximum anonymity, pay with cash.

6. Secure your medical records.  Negative information in your medical records can have problematic effects beyond what you'd expect. Aside being denied health insurance coverage or payment of claims, your employer and other non-medical organizations can sometimes access your file. Here are several things you should know:

  • Get a copy of your MIB report. No, this has nothing to do with "Men In Black." MIB is the Medical Information Bureau, a central database accessed by many insurance companies. Write to: MIB, Box 105, Essex Station, Boston, MA, 02112 or call 866-692-6901.
  • Review your HMO and Medicare/Medicaid files yearly. If you find incorrect, embarrassing, or outdated entries, petition to have them removed or corrected.
  • Send a letter to your physician. Ask that your doctor and/or staff only give out the minimum amount of information that's requested by an insurance company or other third party. Prior to HIPAA, without this instruction, many medical offices would hand over your entire file, without considering the potential consequences.
  • Never sign a "Blanket Waiver." If you do, it'll authorize the release of ALL information regarding your lifetime medical history, symptoms, findings, and exam results. If you need to sign a release, be sure to edit the wording to restrict its scope and duration (that is, limit it to records from a specific doctor or hospital, and put an expiration date on the release).
  • If you need treatment for a sensitive condition, like depression, alcoholism, drug abuse, sexually-transmitted disease, etc., seek treatment at a non-employer-sponsored program. While there is *supposed* to be confidentiality, plenty of abuses occur. If you still wish to be treated at a company-sponsored facility, get written confirmation of confidentiality *before* discussing anything with a counselor.

7. Be aware of how you are monitored at work. Your employer has the legal right to monitor your inbound and outbound email, voice mail, hard-drive contents, web browsing, and (non-personal) telephone calls. Find out what's actively being monitored at your company and adjust your at-work behavior accordingly. See if you can check your personnel file every six months or so. Most of us still remember the grade school fear that one of our misdeeds would be recorded for perpetuity on our "Permanent Record." The not so funny part is that disciplinary actions and negative/sensitive information are commonly recorded in your real permanent record: your personnel file. If you can determine that it's tainted by these entries, negotiate to have them removed after a reasonable period of time.

8. Not everybody needs to know your birthday. You might think this is a minor point. It's not. While (I hope) you know to restrict access to your Social Security Number, many people give out their birth date to anyone who asks. Here's why you shouldn't. Even though your full name is already listed in thousands of databases, often it's just a name, and doesn't mean much. There are likely thousands of other people who share your name. If you ever find yourself in a position where you need to markedly lower your profile, a person seeking you with only knowledge of your name will have a hard time tracking you down. However, armed with both your name and birth date, any competent private investigator will find you in less than a day. Your friends and family already know your birthday. Very few other people need to know it. While you should be honest on insurance or loan applications, or on government forms, consider making an "honest mistake" everywhere else. Privacy expert J.J. "Jack" Luna recommends transposing the month and day when writing your birth date. For example, if your birth date is June 12, 1951, write it as 12/6/51. While this only works if you were born on one of the first twelve days of the month, it's easy to claim you made an innocent mistake if challenged. (Outside of the US and Canada, dates are commonly written day first, month second.) Another approach is to "swap" birthdates with a family member.

9. Guard your driver's license. Your driver's license shows your home address, and it's better for strangers not to know that bit of information. Especially when you're traveling. Don't put your license in that plastic window in your wallet. One private eye found out a target's address by asking him to break a $10 bill. When he opened his wallet, the PI spotted the information he needed. (It goes without saying that your luggage tags shouldn't have an externally visible address on them. Get the kind that hides it inside the tag.) Consider using a P.O. Box or office address on your license if your state's DMV allows it. I put little strips of white tape over the non-essential info on my license (DOB, license number, etc.) since security guards never NEED to see that stuff.

10. Choose the right telephone for secure calls. If you need to have a truly private conversation with someone, do not use your home, office, or regular cell phone. Use a prepaid phone card at a payphone if your call requires extra security. Or consider getting a prepaid cell phone. Even though the cell phone call could be intercepted and recorded, prepaid cell phone calls can't be traced to you. By the way, I learned this from watching an episode of the Sopranos (and verified it afterwards). But I sure hope you'll have a more benevolent reason than Tony for wanting to have a private talk with someone! By the way, even though wiretaps on your landline phone are rare, and require a court order, your phone company records are not legally protected. So while your conversation might be private, it's not that hard to find out to whom you've been talking.

11. Keep your email and web surfing private. I hope you already know that ordinary emails sent from either your home or workplace are not secure at all. If you want email privacy, sign up with Lok.Mail. You'll get military-strength crypto with 1024/3072 bit PGP encryption; however both you and your recipient will need to use Lok.Mail addresses. Your web surfing behavior is easily tracked by anyone with the right technical smarts. If you're concerned about this, consider using Anonymizer.com. for just eighty bucks a year, you'll be become invisible to the web sites you visit, and nothing you see or download can be tracked back to you. It's the best way to surf at work without being monitored. Ad blocking and pop-up stopping are built-in to the service, as is cookie control. However, If you don't want to use Anonymizer, it's a good idea to clear your browser's Internet history on a regular basis. Otherwise, anyone with access to your PC can just click the "history" button and find all the sites you've visited recently. For a higher level of scrubbing, use an electronic "shredder" that destroys all traces of deleted files according to U.S. Department of Defense standards.

12. Lower your car's profile. You can't hide your license plate number, and that presents a problem. Let's say your car is parked in an airport long-term parking lot while you're out of town. It's very easy to "run" your plate number and get your home address from the DMV registration – another good reason to use a P.O. Box or office address on your vehicle's registration. Also, you should be aware that bumper stickers proclaiming affiliation to specific groups or schools, and parking stickers listing specific organizations can provide an "evil doer" with information that he or she really shouldn't have. This is all the more important if you drive a high-end vehicle, and are therefore a more likely target for both criminal attack and frivolous lawsuits.

So... you have a lot of ways to protect yourself. However before you start employing these strategies, it's important to recognize that achieving privacy entails trade-offs. Most of us lead two separate lives: our public life (associated with our business, the organizations we participate in, our avocations, and our communities), and our private home life with our families. For many people, there are good reasons to maintain a relatively high public profile. Being well-known in our communities and industries has many benefits. Woody Allen once said, “80% of success is just showing up.” While I disagree with the 80% part, Woody’s law largely holds. When you’re a high-profile individual within your “community” (business/industry or town), many interesting opportunities spontaneously open up to you. You become “magnetized,” and attract people who can help you achieve the things you want out of life. The challenge is to lower your private profile without disappearing altogether. You’ll have to decide, for example, whether to have an unlisted home telephone number.

Remember, it’s your right to keep your personal information on a “need to know” basis. Your private information has substantial value – that’s why so many people are trying to collect it. However you are under no obligation to provide them with the details of your life...


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