Friday, November 7, 2014

Protecting Your Identity in a Cyberworld

The headlines continue to shout examples of major retailers, banks and insurance companies whose databases have been hacked, providing the hackers with your personal information. What can you do about these breaches of security?

Short of dying or cutting yourself off from all commerce, you can’t do anything to stop the security breaches, but by preparing you can limit their damage to you when they occur.

It will happen; your credit card information will be stolen.

The most important first step to protect yourself is to assume your credit card information will be stolen.

It is going to happen. It may happen the old-fashioned way and someone steals your wallet and grabs your credit card. Maybe a restaurant worker has a magnetic strip reader and necessary tools to duplicate your card. Maybe the bank is hacked, or the retailer or insurance company. Maybe your computer is stolen or someone snags your userID and password while you are online. Or your “safe” cloud backup is hacked. It doesn’t matter how it happens; what matters is how prepared you are for it.

The best way to limit the damage is to have strong safeguards in place before your information is compromised.

Create Strong Passwords: 

Yes, you’ve heard it a thousand times, but if you haven’t already done it, do it now: create unique, strong passwords for every online account. Strong passwords include at least one capital letter, one small letter, one number, and one symbol and are a minimum of eight characters long. You can use a program that develops long unmemorizable passwords and keep track of them for you. Alternatively, you can develop your own, based on a system that you remember, but that will not be obvious to someone who comes across your written list.

Of course you keep a written list; you’re human, aren’t you?

You can develop a system that you will remember given a password clue. Here’s an example. Your password list has “4T” next to Chase.

Your actual password is aHc16@jmj#X arrived at by taking the first three letters of the company (cha), writing them backwards (ahc), capitalizing the 2nd letter (aHc) adding a standard (to you) 7-digit group (16@jmj#) and then (the code part—4T) which means the letter at the end will be 4 after T and since T is capitalized, so will be X (the 4th letter after T).

If you lose your list of passwords, no one is going to figure out that Chase 4T means aHc16@jmj#X and BOA 2c would convert to aOb16@jmj#e. Yet after just a few days, you’ll know your passwords for almost all websites without having to look them up. With such a coding scheme, you should keep a note detailing your conversion key in your safe deposit box so upon your demise your executor can sort out what your passwords are and access your accounts.

Also note that however a thief/hacker obtains your information for one account, they won’t be able to figure it out for other accounts.

Set up Credit Card Alerts

Most major credit cards and many retail cards allow you to set up alerts so whenever your credit card is used, you get an email. For example, Chase allows alerts for the following transactions:

  • Any charge on the card over a specified amount (I use $1.00, so I see them all.)
  • Any international charge.
  • Any online, telephone or mail charge.
  • Any gas station charge.

They have a number of other alerts available (credit limits, bill paid, etc.) I chose to receive an alert for any balance transfers (since I don’t transfer balances, I’d learn of the fraud immediately.)

The point of these alerts is to catch a problem early. Thieves often put through a small charge to make sure the credit card information is working, and, if successful, follow up with a series of larger charges. If you spot any suspicious activity, immediately contact the credit card company’s fraud group. Usually, they will cancel your card and issue a new one. Once, (years ago with a corporate card) they asked to keep the card active so they could follow the merchandise and attempt to apprehend the criminals. They issued a new card for my purchases.

Utilize a single credit card for automatic payments

Designate one credit card for use in automatic payments: utility bills, cable, newspaper, whatever recurring payments you set up. This isolates your automatic payments from your every day credit card use.

It’s a pain to have to change all your automatic payments. Making this division means that when the card you use for regular purchases is compromised (in my case usually because I left it somewhere), you don’t have to bother with notifying other companies.

Credit Rating Agencies

The three credit rating agencies, Equifax, Experion and TransUnion, have tools to help you protect your credit. You should request your annual free credit report from each as a matter of course. (I suggest spreading them out every four months to give yourself the best coverage.) Should you spot any incorrect or suspicious information, follow-up with the company and make sure to keep all documentation.

The agencies also have methods to limit access to your credit information. Putting them in place will make it much more difficult for you to get new credit and in some cases will make it hard to obtain new services (cable for example) because the provider checks your credit before agreeing to sign you up and that check is blocked. However, if you are concerned about unauthorized persons or companies accessing your credit, a freeze will solve the problem.

If you suspect your personal information has been compromised, you can have the three companies put on a Credit Fraud Alert, which notifies companies to contact you before approving any credit. Experian’s, for example, lasts 90 days – unless you have been a victim of fraud—in  which case they have a seven-year extension with proof of the fraud.

Summary: (1) Recognize your information will be stolen (2) Implement strong passwords (3) Set up credit card transaction alerts for early warning (4) Make sure to utilize free credit rating agency tools.

~ Jim

Monday, November 3, 2014

Jim Goes Hollywood

I confess the blog title reeks of hyperbole, but what better way to announce that I am now in the video business? In a day and age where three-year-olds post selfies to Facebook and kindergartners make YouTube videos from their smart phones, I am perhaps a bit behind the curve. I decided to rectify the matter and create YouTube videos of me reading the opening scenes of my Seamus McCree novels.

While my son, Brad, was vacationing at our camp in the U.P. in September, he and I experimented with taking videos using my Nikon camera. Our first attempt used the lake as the background. That produced a fine picture of the lake with trees on the far shore in high color. Unfortunately, I was so underexposed as to look like black death.

We tried the woods, which fixed the exposure issues, but the microphone picked up each leaf as it crashed to the ground. Too distracting.

Next we tried the screened porch of our cabin (backlight problem again). Finally we waited for a day with no wind and recorded a great take of me reading the first chapter of Cabin Fever out in the middle of our woods. By then, Brad had figured out the optimal distance to maximize hearing my voice and minimize background noise; he’d figured out the zoom so I was not too big and not too small. He had it nailed—except the budding videographer neglected to focus the shot. The tree behind me was in exquisite focus; I appeared as if painted by Monet.

I put the project on the back shelf, and we enjoyed the rest of his vacation exploring the woods on our ATVs. In mid-October, Jan was gone for a few days visiting family and I had the camp to myself. What better time to try this again? The opening picture of this blog is a still taken from me reading Bad Policy.

It took a few test shots for me to figure out the framing, focus, etc. I had already decided I would need to edit out errors and had some simple software to accomplish that task. A few hours later, I had two movies—but they were huge space hogs. (The Nikon takes HD video.) YouTube does its own compression, but whenever I tried to load one of the videos, it would almost complete the process and then return an error message.

So, I downloaded free video compression software, squeezed the file to manageable size, and performed the YouTube uploads. Here are the two files if you are interested:

Cabin Fever Reading:
Bad Policy Reading:

Will having YouTube videos available on my website bring me more readers? Who knows, but they are available if someone happens to stumble across them.

A time/value analysis would undoubtedly indicate I would have been better off spending the time writing the next book. But hey, who said everything in life should be about the most efficient way to use my time? I had fun and who can resist the fire in the background?

~ Jim

This blog was first published 11/2/2014 on Writers Who Kill

Saturday, November 1, 2014

Two months left for 2014 Goals

I am using the fear of ridicule as part of my motivation to realize two of my 2014 goals: weight loss and exercise. To make that fear real, I need to periodically publish my results. After a few rocky months, I appear to still be on target, but all will not be easy in the last two months. Here is what I have accomplished on the weight goal:

The original 2014 objective was to lose and keep off twelve pounds. When I lost fifteen pounds, I knew that if I gained three pounds back I would still meet the goal, but I would not feel good about it. As a result, I modified the objective to keep off the whole fifteen pounds through year's end. It's an important modification because my weight has followed a yo-yo trend over too many years, and on average I gained three pounds during the last three months of the year.

I figured that if I am going to permanently keep the weight off this time, I need to start by not gaining weight in October through December. The green line represents the revised goal and I have stayed underneath it.

And the exercise goal in a chart:

Even with a bridge tournament and bad weather I met October's exercise goal. November will take concentrated effort. We'll be up north for half the month and the roads will not be good for running. (As I write this it is 16 degrees, so the road is frozen and slick.) Then we'll take a week visiting friends along our way south to Georgia for winter. Those are the challenges. I expect to return next month with another red bar that reaches the green goal.

In thirty days we'll both know how I did.

~ Jim