Friday, December 3, 2010

(Not) Living in Fear

My employer hosted a lunch-and-learn seminar last week about "How Not to Be A Victim of Crime." I had no trouble with the pizza and soda menu, the chance to socialize with colleagues, and the possibility of picking up a few safety ideas. If an hour of lunch and fellowship yields even one helpful tip, I figure it's time well spent.

In fact, the presentation pointed out a lot of things I hadn't really thought about before. (Boy, after that sentence they should rescind my English degree. Thank goodness I'm just blogging!)

The highlights:

Skimmers (tiny devices that steal your credit card information) are a major problem at stand-alone ATMs, external bank ATMs, and gas pumps. You can't see them with the naked eye, so just being aware is not enough. Better to get "cash back" in a transaction when you need money. Better to pay inside the gas station. Criminals hate to be observed, so anywhere with a clerk and/or a camera is more secure.

Check your bank balance on-line every day. Check your credit card balances regularly and often, too, so you can discover unusual activity quickly.

Pull your credit report every 4 months. You get one free report per year from each of the 3 credit bureaus. So get it from one in January, from another in May, and from the third in September. You've covered the whole year and it hasn't cost you anything. Seeing your report regularly allows you to more quickly discover if criminals have opened other accounts in your name.

When you walk out of a store talking on your cellphone, it's like you are carrying a $100 bill in your hand. That's how criminals view it.

When you are digging around in your purse at your car, looking for your keys (the male presenter did quite an impressive imitation of a posture he called "The Ostrich"), that's how criminals will choose to approach you. Distraction makes you a target.

Restaurants are another risky place, where you give your card to a complete stranger for 5 to 10 unsupervised minutes. Think your server has a cell phone? You bet they do. They also have plenty of time and opportunity to take a photo of the front and back of your card, which means they have everything they need to go shopping. His recommendation: when you get that little folder with your tab in it, carry it up to the bar or the manager yourself and pay. That way your card never leaves your sight. Their job is to serve you, so they shouldn't have a problem with it. If they do, take your business to another restaurant.

Shred everything that has more than your name on it, with a cross-cut shredder. This includes receipts that "only" show the last 4 digits of your card number. Because the bar code contains ALL the information. Think about it: when you return something, the clerk scans your receipt and then says "Do you want this credited back to your card?" This is true even if you pay cash but belong to a buying club that links the purchase to your rewards number. It's all in there, and criminals know how to buy those scanners.

Most home break-ins happen during the daytime, when people are at work. Criminals assume everyone has the same stuff (big-screen t.v., computer, etc.). Your goal should be to distinguish your house from all the others, so they have an incentive to skip it. Display a "beware of dog" sign, even if you have a friendly dog, a tiny dog, or no dog at all. Stick a security service sign in your front yard and/or stickers in the windows, even if you don't have an alarm system. (You can buy them on eBay or at local stores.) Invest in some timers for your lights and maybe your radio or t.v. Schedule the timers for different times during the day and night.

So this was very useful information . . . but it was also scary. It certainly painted a picture of the world as an evil place, filled with people who want to take advantage of me, at the gas station, at restaurants, and at home. I don't like the feeling that wherever I am, someone is sizing me up as a victim, or waiting for me to leave home so they can break in and steal the big-screen t.v. that I don't have.

On the other hand, I'm not stupid. I know this area is high-crime, and my city is the 8th most dangerous city nationally. About a month ago, there was a rape only a few blocks away. I cultivate safe habits, like not coming home late at night and not sleeping with the windows open. And I am thinking about moving to a better neighborhood, and eventually to a smaller, safer city. Neither change will be motivated entirely by crime, but safety is another reason to make a change that I want to make anyway.

I certainly could be more careful with my personal information. I bought a shredder for my paperwork (to replace the tearing-up-by-hand low tech method for information disposal) and I will be changing my card-use habits. I have definitely underestimated the risks of using my debit card for many transactions. I plan to get the security stickers for the windows and doors, and some timers. And I'm pricing portable security systems, just in case I want to go that far.

But philosophically, I'm not willing to view the world as filled with people who want to do me harm. Seeing a mugger around every corner and a burglar in every car that drives by seems to me like no way to live.


  1. I agree - it's destructive to live in such fear. Some might call it caution but I think we've tipped way over that line. Perhaps the price we pay for all the world at our fingertips? And I sure wouldn't want to give that up.

  2. With you 100%, I am not prepared to check my bank balance every single day...then the thieves are already robbing me of much of my precious time and they ain't even hit my house yet.

    We've got a fireplace, I burn the sensitive stuff.

    What can you do, get on with it all is the best.

  3. I think your approach is very sensible. And not to scare you any more, but my husband is a retired parole officer. Most folks have no idea what kind of career criminals are living in their neighborhoods or roaming the streets. If they did they wouldn't sleep at night. I think it's best just not to know....but to be cautious.


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