Legal experts: Protect your privacy online, despite trends
January 31, 2008
OKLAHOMA CITY – It’s not that privacy – and protection – of personal information are totally a thing of the past, but people must be more vigilant than ever in the online world, legal experts say.
Ironically, one attorney says, in an age when concern about privacy is rising, many insist on becoming more and more public on sites such as MySpace.
“There are a number of statutes which have made information held by one person about another subject to not being disclosed, have made it confidential,” said Oklahoma City attorney Bob Luttrell. “There are some statutes that have made that information confidential, under certain circumstances, even from the prying eyes of the state or federal government.”
Luttrell, with the McAfee and Taft law firm, said such laws generally cover identifiers that reveal more than what he referred to as basic “telephone information.”
He said the identifying information may be a person’s name associated with an account number or medical record number or history.
“Those are almost all focused at what information gets gathered by certain industries regarding their customers,” Luttrell said.
One such federal law applies to financial institutions, another to medical records.
“What we’re starting to see is, people are having expectations that everything about them that they don’t tell someone is private,” Luttrell said. “That’s a little unrealistic, I think.”
As an example, he said, people get upset about the fact that their name and bank account number may have gotten out, when every time they write a check, their name and account number are published to the world.
“I think our sense about privacy now is that other people have a responsibility to protect information that I give them about me,” Luttrell said, “but in a lot of my daily life, I release that information to the world, just as a matter of how I live my life.”
In the world of the Internet, that publication to the world is almost literal.
“And it lives forever,” Luttrell said.
Search engines index even Web pages that do not exist anymore, he added.
“If it’s ever been out, even if it’s deleted from the site, it remains in their search engine, I guess, forever,” Luttrell said.
There are steps people can take to protect themselves, particularly from crimes such as identity theft, he said.
Those include basic but important things such as not putting Social Security numbers on personal checks, which used to be fairly common.
“It’s basically because the one identifier we have that segregates us as individuals, at least in the United States, is a unique Social Security number,” Luttrell said.
The Federal Trade Commission has undertaken a project taking input from industry about whether it is possible to shift to another unique identifier, away from the SSN, he said.
“It doesn’t seem that there are very many people that think that’s a possibility,” Luttrell said.
People should also be careful with unsolicited credit card solicitations they receive, making sure they are destroyed, he added.
“Those can be accepted, then the credit card intercepted,” he said.
Luttrell mentioned a study that determined that more personal information is disclosed in response to spam e-mails and personal contacts than is obtained by hacking into computer systems.
“At one point that was the case, that people just give it away,” he said.
Consumers can block their accounts with credit bureaus, restricting solicitations and inquiries, he added.
Of course, there will always be scammers who can get around certain protections.
“They’re ingenious,” Luttrell said, “and I don’t know that there’s any way to fully protect yourself from that, other than just not do business with anybody and not give any information to anyone. It’s part of the function of, I’m afraid, living our life in a technologically advanced society.”
Luttrell raised an issue that is somewhat generational when it comes to privacy, with many younger people revealing much of their personal lives on social networking sites.
“We’ve got all this concern about privacy, but people want to be more and more public,” he said. “For some reason, people don’t think about what kind of information can be obtained from their MySpace page.”
Jane Wheeler, director of the Consumer Protection Unit in the Oklahoma Attorney General’s Office, said many people do not protect their personal information as carefully as they should.
“But it’s important to say that sometimes you can do everything and it’s still stolen,” she added.
The over-arching consideration is to always be on guard when dealing with anyone who wants to know that information, Wheeler said.
“Don’t give it to them,” she said. “It’s as simple as that, although in practice, it’s not so simple. There are a lot of con artists out there that are very good at making themselves look like they’re somebody you know, when they aren’t.”
Wheeler said sophisticated Internet phishers copy logos and other information from the Web sites of, say, credit card companies, then send out thousands of e-mails hoping to catch people unaware and obtain their account numbers and other information.
“These people are very hard to catch, because they’ll do it for 48 hours, get what they can, then do it again with another type of bank or whatever,” she said.
Wheeler said that legitimate banks, credit card companies and shopping sites do not send out e-mails or make phone calls seeking such information.
Protecting passwords is another basic concept that many do not follow.
It’s important, Wheeler said, to develop uncommon passwords that are long and contain both numbers and letters.
“It’s very hard, I know, because we get asked for so many passwords,” she said, adding that passwords should be changed about every 90 days.
Consumers should also check the privacy policies of Web sites they use, Wheeler said.
“Find out how they’re going to use your information,” she said.
When deciding whether to purchase something online, Wheeler said, know who you’re dealing with, and try to make sure their site is a secure “https” site.
“Of course, hackers can get into anything, but you’re just trying to make your odds better,” Wheeler said.
Updating the security software on home computers and being careful with free software and file-sharing could also increase those odds, she indicated.
Wheeler said one scam making the rounds now involves automated phone calls.
The caller tells the consumer that “we’re just calling to make you a better offer” on credit cards, but are really just after personal information.
Often, Wheeler said, legitimate phone numbers may show up on caller-identification programs, but the calls are actually generated from elsewhere.
“We’ve had people that have gotten sucked into that,” she said.
These unfortunates often discover sizeable unauthorized transactions on their credit card accounts.
Even offline, Wheeler said, consumers should be on alert, protecting their handbags and making sure no one is looking over their shoulder when they make a purchase.
“Once your identity gets stolen, it can be just a total nightmare,” she said. “It’s better to head it off if you can.”
Oklahoma City attorney Kathi Rawls said it is key for consumers to access their credit reports at least quarterly from one of the three major credit bureaus, and look for any mistakes or unauthorized transactions.
“A lot of times, people don’t even know that they have the right to a free credit report annually,” Rawls said.
It is important to monitor all three agencies, she said, because not all have the same information.
If an inaccuracy is found, she said, a consumer should write to the credit-reporting agency by certified mail, return receipt requested.
“When they know that there are specific charges or balances that are foreign, they should immediately make a fraud report to their local police department,” Rawls said.
Credit bureaus and creditors are often reluctant to take action regarding any charges that have not been reported to law enforcement, she added.
Rawls said some creditors hound individuals who are obviously not responsible for a debt.
She said she has two cases currently where she is having to go through a jury trial to get transactions off of her clients’ records.
Rawls said one client had his very first paycheck garnished to pay a default judgment for a credit card debt that he does not owe.
“A poor consumer has got to jump through hoops to try to prove that they are not the person who made these charges,” Rawls said. “It’s very frustrating.”