Tips & Tweaks: Your Privacy? It's Toast

My blood boils when I read about companies losing control of vital data. It's bad enough we have to worry about identity theft without the likes of ChoicePoint, Citigroup, and others spilling the beans on us.

I dug around for details, and this week I offer some quick reads on a few of the more egregious incidents, as well as a couple of ways to check into your own credit reports and medical records.

The Culprits

"We literally can't find a package." That's from what's got to be a dismayed United Parcel Service representative admitting to the loss of a Citigroup package chock full of credit data. You'd think Citigroup would have hired a bonded courier for something that important, but you'd think wrong. The juicy details are in "Citigroup Loses Data on 3.9 Million Customers."

Time Warner got into hot water when it lost backup tapes loaded with employee data. (But look on the sunny side--at least the company backs up its data.) There's more to the story in "Time Warner Loses Workers' Personal Data."

Here's another one for you to chew on. ChoicePoint, the undisputed leader in leaking data, recently announced a change in the way it'll sell sensitive data. (Like raising prices?) Rest assured, ChoicePoint's interested in the welfare of its customers' data, so said Chairman and CEO Derek V. Smith. His quote, in the third paragraph of "ChoicePoint to Stop Some Personal Data Sales" is, IMHO, hilarious.

And as I write this, there's another fiasco involving 40 million credit cards, many of them MasterCards. Read about this debacle in "Security Breach Exposes 40 Million Credit Cards."

Quick Outlook Update: Outlook has a junk mail filter upgrade available. Go to Microsoft's support page and read the section titled "How to determine whether the update is installed." Or you can go for broke and just install the patch.

Dig This: Getting too wound up about your lack of privacy? How about a little distraction? Try the Lords III Catapult Game, a delicious and deceptively difficult Flash game. All you need do is catapult the rock onto the Keep, avoiding your White Knight.

Credit Theft Workarounds

I've been seeing more news stories about claims that instituting national ID cards may be one solution. I don't think so. This idea isn't new; I remember privacy activists' alarm bells going off as far back as the seventies. But with ongoing terrorist threats and ID theft on the rise, the national ID movement is gaining a head of steam these days. I encourage you to read the lengthy, but valuable, "Coming Soon: National ID Cards?" to get up to speed on the federal Real ID Act.

In the meantime, the feds are finally doing something--though I think they need to be a wee bit more aggressive.

When the U.S. Federal Reserve Board finally noticed problems with data gone missing, it insisted that banks tell their customers when their data has been stolen or illegally accessed--and do it "as soon as possible." Jiminy, you'd think a real time period, like within 24 hours, might be more appropriate. Read "New Federal Rules Dictate Bank ID Theft Notifications" and decide for yourself if the feds are going far enough.

And Congress has been busy too, considering new legislation with catchy titles like the "Notification of Risk to Personal Data Act" and the "Information Protection and Security Act." Anush Yegyazarian dissects both bills and talks about a recent Senate hearing on identity theft in "Policing Information Brokers, the Sequel."

Unfortunately, many consumers are their own worst enemies. For details, read "How Savvy Are You About Your Online Security?" In it, the reporter digs into a study that found an alarming number of people using the Internet are still clicking on phishing sites, and clearly unclear on the concept.

Free Medical and Credit Reports

There is a glimmer of good news. AnnualCreditReport.com gives you a way to get a free credit report once a year from the three major agencies--TransUnion, Equifax, and Experian. The offer is currently available in the Western, Midwestern, and Southern states; by fall, everyone in the U.S. will have access.

You may think it's a scam. Nope, it's legit and something you ought to do. I learned that TransUnion had no less than seven serious errors about me. They messed up a middle initial, had an incorrect previous home address, and listed four credit card accounts that didn't belong to me. It gets worse. Those credit cards belonged to someone else, and I could see not only the account numbers, but also the other guy's social security number. What a nightmare.

After four calls, TransUnion finally fixed up my record. Fair warning, their site is slow, and you'll find it cumbersome and difficult, just like the customer service rep I talked with.

If you're curious about your credit records, you'll probably jump at the once-a-year chance to see if there's anything amiss in your medical records. The Fair and Accurate Credit Transactions Act lets you get a free copy of your report by calling 866/692-6901. For details, go to the MIB Group site.

Consumer Watch writer Anne Kandra covered one aspect of the medical records situation in "Trusting Your Health History to the Web." The column's a year old but the links are still valid, and more important, the content is still vital.

I found two other spots where you can pick up more ways to protect yourself. "How to Take Back Your Privacy" is old, but still loaded with current tips. And in his "Digital Duo" video, "Keeping an Eye on Your Credit Card," Steve Manes talks about AnnualCreditReport.com.

Quick Windows Update: While you're downloading patches and upgrades, you might as well spend a few minutes getting the critical ones for Microsoft Internet Explorer, Word, and MSN Messenger. It's all in "Patch New Cracks in Microsoft Software," Stu Johnston's July Bugs and Fixes column.

Dig This: You say you need more distractions? Can do: Try the Birthday Game. Enter your birthday (as long as it's in the 1969 to 1998 range, that is) and try to figure out which of the celebrities are younger or older then you.

Steve Bass writes the "Hassle-Free PC" column in PC World's print edition and is the author of PC Annoyances, 2nd Edition: How to Fix the Most Annoying Things About Your Personal Computer, available from O'Reilly. Sign up to have Steve Bass's Tips and Tweaks newsletter e-mailed to you each week. Comments or questions? Send Steve e-mail.

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