Thursday, April 28, 2011

Irony, Scams, Theft, and Protection

Identity theft is one of those buzz phrases that you constantly hear passed around the office, on TV, your parents, friends, etc, etc… It is also one of those buzz phrases that you casually ignore until “you or someone you know” goes through the experience- although usually it takes you being the one. As a 24 year old I am one of those people who doesn’t learn vicariously through other people, but rather, I wait to “experience” things myself (hints of sarcasm?). In other words I can be hard headed and naïve, and in this case it was to the reality of account theft.

Last Sunday I go to check my bank account and I see a $15.62 hold on my account at McDonald’s. I have not visited or bought anything at McDonald’s but maybe once in the past year. So I called up my bank and they told me to hang in to see if the charge actually goes through- maybe it was a gas station or other restaurant or something. Again insert naïve Aaron- “hmm well must have just been some gas station or bar.” No red flags or anything.

On Tuesday I had to fill up on gas on the way to drop a printer off for work. My card was denied at every pump at the station. I knew I had money on it. Strange. Once again I called up my bank. I am transferred over to fraud protection and told that my card had been “compromised,” and that my card was shut down and a new one was on the way. Very strange. But, I inquire and apparently it was shut down because I reported the McDonald’s charge. So, at this point I just had to wait for a new card, but all was ok.

On Wednesday I attended a “Fraud Protection and Identity Theft Seminar” presented by Synovys. I learned a lot of cool things about the present state of identity theft (a couple of which I will cover below), but one in particular was the importance of password choice. Basically- don’t use the same password for your all of your logins, mix lower case and uppercase characters, use “$%&@” characters, and numbers. Upon reflection I realized that I couldn’t violate these rules any better if I was trying. Same passwords across my accounts, simple words, and few if any non-letter characters.

When I got back to the office, in light of what I had learned, I at least decided to change my Online Bank Account password to be different from my Facebook Password. Well, good timing because as soon as I logged in, I saw that my account had been spent down to $10. Oh the irony! I go to an Identity Theft Seminar and come back to see that my identity had been theft-ed.

Back on the phone with the bank. After being passed between departments for a while, I landed in the fraud department. “Sir, this card was used in person for all of the charges that you are citing.” Me: “There is no way I made those purchases! And, I have my card right here; I just used it to give you all my number!” (**internally questioning myself. “Wait. Did I spend $150 bucks at Exxon on Sunday?”**) Fraud Dep.: “Sir have you been to Chicago anytime recently?” Me: “Whaaat?! I live in Charleston, SC!”

Frad Dep.: “Well these things happen, counterfeit cards are becoming a common occurrence.”

While I still have no idea how my number got out, luckily the fraud department is working with me and will be crediting my account. Needless to say I think it is appropriate and enlightening to consider some of the dangers out there. Here are the top 10 scams for 2011 that I learned about at the seminar. Some are quite surprising. I will also show you what a good password is and a way to remember it.

Top Scams for 2011

From scambusters.org

1. Phishing and identify theft. The growth of malware mentioned above, coupled with hijacking of social networking accounts and more sophisticated hacking technology, means that identity theft will remain the Number One Internet crime for the foreseeable future.

2. Malware. As many as 60,000 new pieces of malicious software appear every day, says McAfee. The growing use of USB drives to store and transfer data may also contribute to the spread of malware.

3. Economy related scams. The economy is taking much longer to recover than hoped, so expect to see foreclosure and load modification scams to continue. Plus, as mentioned above, we now include work-from-home scams in this category.

4. Nigerian scams. In their report referred to earlier, PandaLabs points out that the latest version of the Nigerian scam claims that a compensation fund has been set up and invites previous victims to put in a claim. Then, of course, the scammer requests a fee before the supposed compensation can be released. Nigerian crooks are also muscling in on the bogus girlfriend scam previously dominated by the Russians. Victims, befriended online, end up paying supposedly for airfares and other expenses for their new but non-existent sweetheart.

5. Lottery and gaming scams. We've also broadened this category to include online gaming scams, featured in an earlier Scambusters report. We expect to see significant growth in bogus gambling-related sites, and a continuing stream of phony lottery schemes.

6. Bogus and fraudulent Internet sales. As mentioned above, this category now embraces bogus retail sites selling nothing but thin air, as well as online auctions and classified ads. We think this will be more than enough to push this category up one further place in our Top 10 scams list.

7. Skimming. European banks report a huge increase in debit and credit card information theft, especially at ATMs that have been rigged either to collect card details or to trap the card so the crook can use it. Expect to see a similar trend in the US during 2011.

8. Doorstep scams. With the Census out of the way, this crime drops two places, but bogus contractors, charity collectors, utility workers and others who knock at your front door bent on crime keep it strongly in the charts. And, of course, a major natural disaster, such as hurricane, earthquake or floods, could push this higher.

9. Investment scams. Investors have become more cautious about Ponzi schemes, which draw in new money to pay earlier investors until the whole scheme collapses. But low interest rates will continue to push investors into high-risk and shaky projects. Expect also to see more computer trading programs with dubious claims that they can "beat the market."

10. Travel and vacations. Americans are still vacationing at home in the weak economy and amid safety fears about traveling to Mexico. But with the world economy still unsteady, scammers are more desperate than ever to catch out those who do journey abroad. Watch out especially for a huge ticket scam for the forthcoming London Olympics 2012.

Another great site that I learned about is fightidentitytheft.com. Its got great resources and information regarding how to protect against scams and the steps to take once you think that you have a problem.




Here is another good article from CNBC on the riskiest places to use your Credit Card.

What makes for good password protection?

1. Don’t use the same password across multiple accounts! Especially between Facebook and your Bank account for example.

2. Make it at least eight characters long.

3. It should not contain your user name, real name, or company name.

4. It should not contain a complete word.

5. Is should be significantly different from previous passwords.

6. Make sure that it contains characters from each of the following four categories:

Character category


Uppercase letters

A, B, C

Lowercase letters

a, b, c


0, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9

Symbols found on the keyboard (all keyboard characters not defined as letters or numerals) and spaces

` ~ ! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) _ - + = { } [ ] \ | : ; " ' < > , . ? /

NOTE: A password might meet all the criteria above and still be a weak password. For example,Hello2U! meets all the criteria for a strong password listed above, but is still weak because it contains a complete word. H3ll0 2 U! is a stronger alternative because it replaces some of the letters in the complete word with numbers and also includes spaces.

So, how the heck am I going to remember these passwords?

Try using pneumonic devices:


1. A sentence you would remember:

a. I Attended North Carolina State University For My Undergraduate Degree

2. From that we can assemble:

a. iancsufmud

3. Now we can replace some of the letters which logically look like numbers:

a. 1anc5ufmud

b. i = 1 and s = 5

4. Next we can add non-numeric and non-letter symbols

a. 1@nc5ufmud

b. a = @

5. Finally, capitalize a couple of letters

a. 1@NC5ufmuD

b. NC- the natural abbreviation for North Carolina

c. D- just the last letter, easy to remember to capitalize

6. Done!

a. We now have a strong password that is easy to remember:

b. 1@NC5ufmuD

Here is some more info from Microsoft.

As always let us know if we can assist you with anything. Michaele, our Debt Management Director is very knowledgeable on scams and very accessible. Email her at mpena@fsisc.org

Monday, April 25, 2011

Preparedness eases stress when the unexpected strikes

By Carey Denman

A few weeks ago, I awoke at 5 a.m. to a peculiar humming sound. I trundled out of bed to investigate, but I already knew that something was amiss. The sound was caused by a problem with our water system; our cistern wasn’t filling, and we had no water.

While I waited for a reasonable hour to call for help, I contemplated making my morning coffee. Without running water, the small carafe of water in the refrigerator became precious, and so did the notion of being able to flush the toilet.

Thankfully, I had a couple of five-gallon containers of water stored in our crawlspace. They became necessary for preparing meals and for priming our pump when the water was finally restored. Being without water for half a day was a minor inconvenience, but having a source on hand eased the frustration of not being able to use the faucet.

The situation reminded me how important it is to be prepared for the unexpected. Preparedness isn’t needless worry or frenzied stockpiling; it acknowledges that disruptions in normal services can and do happen. A little bit of advanced planning can reduce the stress and discomfort of these disruptions and can make it easier to cope with unusual circumstances.

When you make preparedness a habit, instead of a reaction to bad news, you can make sensible choices that can protect you in case of a disaster. You can also keep your budget intact when you gather supplies over time, and when they are readily available.

The most successful way to build a preparedness plan is to start with a few small goals. I suggest you start by creating a simple communication plan. Knowing the answers to a few key questions can help you make contact with your family following a disaster.

In the event that you cannot contact your family after a disaster, have a plan in place to meet at a specific location. Where will you meet if you cannot go home? Who will pick up the kids if you are faced with an emergency? If your children are old enough to be left alone, what should they do if they are separated from you?

Once you have a plan to ensure you know how to find one another, a good second step for preparedness is to create a financial binder. By gathering your most important personal and financial documents, you have a set of data that can help you restore order following a disaster.

Next, consider how you will ensure that you have enough food and water if you aren’t able to get to a store or if supply chains are disrupted. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) advises that individuals and families should have enough food and water to last a minimum of 72 hours.

FEMA recommends that you store at least one gallon of water per person per day. For our family of six, this means that we should have 18 gallons of potable water on hand. As for food, what you store will depend on your family size and any specialized needs you may have. If you have an infant, or any dietary restrictions, then you should plan accordingly. If you have pets, they will need food and water, as well.

A well-stocked first aid kit, flashlights and batteries, a basic toolkit, a hand-crank radio, and weather-appropriate clothing for everyone in your household are other essentials you should have readily available.

Disasters and disruptions are never easy, but being prepared can relieve some stress until life returns to normal

Friday, April 15, 2011

Careful planning creates a more carefree vacation

By Carey Denman

Planning a vacation on a budget for two adults and four kids ages 6, 5, 3 and 1 is no easy feat, but it’s an endeavor my husband and I recently undertook. With or without small children, travel is often expensive and complicated.

One way to minimize expenses and keep complications at bay is to plan your vacation with a clear purpose in mind. What are your main priorities? How do you want your getaway to feel? Adventurous? Relaxing? How much are you willing to spend to achieve those priorities? Your answers will help to ensure that you make the most of your vacation.

In the case of our family, our upcoming trip is to celebrate my in-laws and their 40 years of marriage. Accordingly, we determined that our vacation priority was to spend time in a relaxing atmosphere, doing activities that we could enjoy together as family.

Determining our purpose was the easy part. It was a little trickier planning a vacation that would suit our budget and our small children. We knew our destination had to be family-friendly, and that we wanted to avoid harried airport transfers and rental car desks. Those guidelines narrowed our search tremendously.

We also needed to consider how luggage fees would influence the overall price of our trip. After all, we’re still toting things like diapers, sippy cups and ear thermometers, so we knew we wouldn’t be able to skate by with carry-ons, even for a short getaway. With the cost of one checked bag coming in near $40, we decided that we’ll be packing lighter than usual.

Once we had a destination in mind, we started looking for a hotel that could accommodate us. After searching multiple sites and comparing room rates, we found a two-bedroom suite—with a full kitchen—for $160 a night. (The suite sleeps eight, so we’ll be splitting the cost with my husband’s parents.) The hotel is outside the most popular part of our destination city, but it still has plenty of amenities. And with a full kitchen, we’ll be able to save money by preparing some meals in our suite.

While we were trying to decide if this suite was the right choice, the price increased from $160 to $195 a night. The increase wasn’t a deal breaker, but it was disappointing, nevertheless. We did learn a valuable travel lesson, though. If you find a deal that fits your budget, it’s best to book it, rather than hope that the price might go down.

Now that we have booked our hotel suite and paid for our tickets, we have turned our focus to planning our trip activities. We’re planning a loose itinerary that sketches out some specific places that we’d like to visit and restaurants where we’d like to dine. We won’t be scheduling every waking moment, but we’ll use our itinerary to help us anticipate expenses and to ensure that we’re making the most of our getaway. Of course, we’ll include plenty of downtime in our plan, too.

In the end, we plan to spend a total of $1,500 for a resort-style vacation for our family of six. While our vacation is an investment, we feel it’s one worth saving for. We’ll build precious memories as a family and enjoy a respite from our everyday routine.

As the summer months approach, I encourage you to consider your vacation priorities. Thinking about your vacation and carefully considering what activities you hope to do will help keep your budget intact. It’s much easier to return home feeling relaxed when you know your vacation is already paid for.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Birthday boy reminds me of the best gifts in life

By Carey Denman

For weeks, I’ve been asking my soon-to-be 5-year-old what he wants for his birthday. He’s never wavered from his initial response: “Balloons, and party hats, and peanut butter sandwiches.” In fact, he rather convincingly maintains that “it isn’t a party without balloons and party hats.” And you have never seen a boy so enthusiastic about eating peanut butter.

I assure him that his dad and I can meet those requests, but I try to reframe the question by asking, “What would you like inside your presents?” He flashes me his signature grin and says, “Jelly beans and a package of balloons.” After asking the same question several times in different ways, it eventually dawned on me that I was making a simple situation far more complicated than necessary.

Amazingly, my son was focused on the experience of celebrating his birthday, and on the way he wanted his special day to “feel.” I, however, kept trying to boil down the celebration to something to unwrap. This boy has always relished simple pleasures, including things like jelly beans and curvy straws. His birthday requests reminded me, once again, that even as children what we most want and cherish in life are heartfelt experiences, not “stuff.”

So, the party itself will be our gift to him. This party will consist of a cake, made by grandma, in the shape of a hot air balloon. He’ll be sharing his cake and a platter of PB&J sandwiches cut into balloon shapes with our extended family. Bottles of soda, bunches of grapes and a few bags of chips will round out his birthday meal

In keeping with the balloon theme, we’ll hang our birthday wreath on the door (a straw form with 72 balloons pinned to it) and fill our dining room with dozens of free-floating helium balloons. I’ll also hang the pennant bunting we used for the last round of birthdays at our house. And we’ll pass out party hats, of course.

He will have one small gift from us to open, though technically I consider it part of the overall experience. That present will be a t-shirt bearing a drawing he made a few months ago. He’d drawn it after I’d asked him to make a picture of something that made him feel happy. Not surprisingly, he drew a picture of himself, wearing a party hat and holding a bunch of balloons. (As funny aside, his drawing bears his sister’s name, because he can’t quite write his own.)

When I look at the details of his drawing, I see a moment captured in time, a moment when my little boy finds pleasure in the smallest of things. I want to do the same. I am so grateful for this balloon-loving boy who shows me that many joys in life are found in simple things. Planning a party that celebrates him and what he loves reminds me that, in any season of life, our lives can be rich in pleasures that cost very little.

Simple pleasures are even better when shared with family and friends. Planning my son’s party also reminds me that, despite my repeated attempts to find out what to buy him, this celebration isn’t about presents. Having people to celebrate with is perhaps the best gift of all. What I most want, and what I most want to give my son, are experiences that can be enjoyed with the people we love. And if those people happen to be wearing party hats and holding balloons, it will be a perfect birthday indeed.

Friday, April 1, 2011

Majority of Americans are ready to change banks of fees increase

Washington, DC – The National Foundation for Credit Counseling (NFCC) March online poll queried consumers regarding what they would do if their bank raised the fees on their checking account. The majority, 51 percent, indicated they would shop for another bank.

“Even though banks are considering ways to recoup monies lost due to recent regulations, they nonetheless need to retain customers,” said Gail Cunningham, spokesperson for the NFCC. “The results of the survey send a strong signal that consumers are ready to walk if fees are imposed. Money is still tight in many households, with consumers watching how every penny is spent, including even seemingly small amounts such as bank fees.”

A disturbing result from the survey revealed that 16 percent of those polled would probably never notice if the fee increased, indicating a definite lack of attention paid to basic personal finance skills such as reading the monthly bank statement. Equally unsettling is that 11 percent would simply grin and bear it, perhaps fatalistically accepting the fees as a part of today’s financial reality.

Sixteen percent of respondents will at least let their opinion be known by complaining to the bank if fees are hiked.

Only six percent of those weighing in indicated that they would show their displeasure by closing their account and begin using a pre-paid debit card. Such cards can be useful tools, particularly for those who have a tarnished credit file or need to control their spending. Although many do not check the applicant’s credit prior to issuing the card, consumers choosing to utilize this option should read the agreement’s fine print, as pre-paid debit cards may assess monthly fees, thus not offering the desired safe haven from checking account fees.

The actual survey question and results are as follows:

If my bank raised the fees on my checking account, I would

A. Probably never notice = 16%

B. Grin and bear it = 11%

C. Shop for another bank = 51%

D. Complain to them = 16%

E. Close my account and begin using a pre-paid debt card = 6%

If you have questions about your personal finances, reach out to a trained and certified credit counselor. Call Michaele Pena at Family Services, Inc. if you would like more information, (843) 735-7802, or go online to www.fsisc.org.

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