Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Privacy issues and your identity

Even though “privacy” is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution, the concept has developed through laws, court decisions, and popular use. The concept of privacy is often poorly defined and generally has been limited by the courts to those areas were there is a reasonable “expectation of privacy,” such as in a home. Related to this question is the issue of what information about you is “private.” Are your medical records confidential? Can businesses keep detailed records on all your purchases and then share that information with others? Can anyone look up your credit history and bank account information? These issues and others are part of a debate on personal privacy and how much control you can have over information about yourself.

Many Americans would be shocked to learn the sheer volume of information available about them. For example, every time you use a credit card, debit card or payment card of any kind, information concerning when and what you purchased is collected and stored. Every time you order anything by telephone, join a club, register for a prize, enter contest, subscribe to a magazine, open a checking account or participate in any one of thousands of other activities, your name ends up in some kind of mailing or telephone list. All organizations maintain lists of their customers or members and many of these groups will sell the lists to other businesses. Depending on the compiler, the list may be as simple as the white pages of the telephone directory or the list may contain detailed social and economic information, including buying habits, income, personal possessions, and interests. For example, if a surfboard manufacturing company wanted to mail advertisements, the company could purchase a list of surfboard owners in a certain area.

Unfortunately, scam artists do not respect privacy anymore that they respect any other laws. Certain personal records are much more useful to scam artists and others. Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, bank account numbers, and other similar records are frequently used by scam artists to take advantage of their victims. Simply refusing to give this type of personal information to unauthorized sources will go a long way towards limiting the risk of being scammed. At the same time, it is important to understand that it can be a relatively simple process to obtain personal information about you. Do not be put off guard if someone approaches you and tries to gain your confidence by telling you certain information about yourself, such as part of your credit card number, your Social Security number, or what you recently purchased.

Here are some guidelines for protecting personal information:

1. Never give anyone you do not know personal information unless you initiated the contact. If you initiate the contact then you can control who receives personal information. For example, if you call a mail-order catalog and order merchandise, you can properly give them information concerning your credit card in order to complete purchase. If someone contacts you, unsolicited, then under no circumstances should you give out personal information.

2. Avoid using your Social Security number as a form of identification, unless required by law, such as on a tax form or pay check. Businesses generally cannot require you to use your Social Security number for identification purposes.

3. Don’t write account numbers on the outside of envelopes used for paying bills.

4. If possible, shred any personal records you throw away, including deposit slips, receipts, canceled checks and other personal financial information. If you don’t own a shredder, tear the documents into small pieces and throw them away in separate garbage cans.

5. Avoid reporting personal income or other such information in surveys.

6. Pay with cash whenever possible. The computers used as cash registers gather information about your purchases that can later be used to send you targeted advertising.

7. Find out from your telephone service provider how to block caller ID. Usually, there are a combination of numbers you can dial that will prevent your number from being viewed by others. However, some of the people you call may refuse to answer the telephone. This is one of those precautions that have a price.

8. Make sure you know the privacy policies of the various businesses you work with. Reputable companies are eager to provide you with such information. Many Web pages, for example, will have a statement about the privacy of your email address, credit card number, and other personal information.

No comments: