Volume 15, Issue 8 ~ February 22 - February 28, 2007


Keeping Your Identity and Your Secrets To Yourself

In this issue, we bring you Aubree Stafford’s story about what to do with your old cell phone. And, more importantly, what not to do.

Simply pitching out this modern essential of life is unwise for many reasons: Cell phones, like computers, contain heavy metal pollutants that can foul the earth. They can clog landfills unnecessarily. And when we export ship containers of e-waste to developing countries, which happens often, it poses health threats from runoff and, if burned, from air pollution.

There’s another reason to be cautious: Throwing out your cell phone is one of the ways to compromise something near and dear to you: your identity. Identity theft experts tell us that cyber-criminals are constantly seeking the tiniest bits of information to get into your finances.

We’ve seen episodes in our region lately of Marylanders getting exposed.

Personal information of some 130,000 former and current patients at St. Mary’s Hospital in Leonardtown was on a laptop stolen from the hospital in December.

Early this month, Johns Hopkins, in Baltimore, reported the loss of thousands of employee and patient records when back-up computer tapes were lost by a courier.

In the Leonardtown case, at least one former patient has said his credit card was fraudulently used after the theft. He doesn’t know whether it stemmed from the hospital theft.

Identity theft experts say that seldom do you find out how cyber-thieves got your Social Security number or other details of your life.

But it happens all the time. Earlier this month, the Federal Trade Commission, one of the government agencies that chases down identity thieves, reported that it received 4,656 complaints of identity theft last year from Maryland alone.

That ranked us 11th in the country in identity theft complaints on a per-capita basis. Remember that many cases go unreported.

It’s risky and aggravating that so many institutions, including government agencies, demand our Social Security numbers as the principal means of identifying us. The government is careless itself, as we often see in cases of lost or stolen laptops.

Earlier this month, the Department of Veterans Affairs, among the worst at protecting records, began notifying 1.8 million veterans and doctors that their personal information was on a portable hard drive that went missing in an Alabama hospital.

Some things we can’t control. But when it comes to our old cell phones and computers full of emails and other information not easily deleted, we can take steps to be 100 percent certain that we’re not to blame for giving cyberspace criminals the keys to our bank accounts and other secrets of our lives.

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