New Weekly Headlines Inspired Online Safety Lesson: This Year’s Social Networking Trend: Private – It’s the New Public!

December 28, 2011

As promised, I’ll be posting the weekly internet safety lessons that I’m writing in collaboration with the internet safety group iKeepSafe that will introduce digital literacy, safety, security and privacy topics to students and families through current news articles.

The latest lesson is This Year’s Social Networking Trend: Private – It’s the New Public!

Here’s a quick overview: News reports about the repercussions of sharing thoughts, attitudes, actions photos, videos, and more through online services have increasingly been making headlines this year. Whether personal information and private comments are exposed through leaks, hacks, changes in privacy settings, new features, or general indiscretion, the fallout is beginning to catch up with consumers of all ages. This lesson will help students and families develop an understanding of the very real likelihood that any content they post online will be seen by far more people than they intended to share with, and how understanding this reality can help them make smarter choices about what and what not to share. Take a look and start the conversation in your home…..



New Weekly Headlines-Inspired Internet Safety Content Available for Schools and Parents

December 20, 2011

In collaboration with the internet safety group iKeepSafe, I’m pleased to announce a new initiative for introducing digital literacy, safety, security and privacy topics to students and your children.

Each week on behalf of iKeepSafe’s iKeepCurrent project, I pick a current news story and use it as the genesis of a short safety, security, privacy, citizenship, or other internet related lesson. By pulling from news of what’s happening today the lessons are extremely relevant and provide a natural way to pull events into perspective as teachable moments, and as drivers for learning new and positive online skills.

Every lesson includes a list of key concepts, vocabulary words, equipment needed, the full news articles, the lesson plan, optional activities, additional resources, plus learning development resources for teachers, and specific material just for parents.

To check out the lessons and see how you can leverage this material, click on one of the thumbnails (below) or go to and register to a weekly email.

I will begin posting these lessons every week as they appear.


Tis the Season for Fakes, Knockoffs and Rip-offs

December 7, 2011

Looking for a great deal on hot, name brand items this holiday season may be slightly safer after the federal government seized 150 internet domain names during a targeted crackdown on counterfeit goods, but letting your guard down would be a real mistake.

Cheap fakes are usually easy to spot and hard for crooks to get a lot of cash for, but sophisticated counterfeit high end goods can often pass as legitimate, allowing scammers to command the same prices as the real items and making it a lucrative business for criminals.

Counterfeit goods may be dangerous to your health; whether the knockoffs are shoes or electronics, how those materials were handled, what they were treated with, and whether they were tested may pose serious risks to your health – or the health of your gift recipient.

According to Immigration and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton, “Not only is this is a direct threat to American innovation … but it’s also a public safety issue.”

Not only is your health at risk, and the financial health of the legitimate companies whose products are being counterfeited, it’s important to understand that criminals reinvest their profits to bankroll more crime. Your purchase may be funding your upcoming identity theft.

The government said it is unclear how much money criminals have made from counterfeiting, but since the crackdown on counterfeit sellers started last year, internet users have gone to the seized domains more than 77 million times.

Asked about the commercial value, Morton said, “Typically we don’t track the volumes of sales of these particular sites, [but] it is very large figures. Well, well above millions.”

Top 10 Counterfeit Products

Take particular care when shopping for any of the top 10 counterfeit items, which according to The National White Collar Crime Center are:

  1. Footwear – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $45.75 million
  2. Consumer Electronics – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $33.59 million
  3. Clothing – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $18.68 million
  4. Handbags/ Wallets/ Backpacks – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $15.42 million
  5. Music/ Movies/ Software – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $12.68 million
  6. Computers & Hardware – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $9.5 million
  7. Cigarettes – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $8.85 million
  8. Watches & Parts – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $7.85 million
  9. Jewelry – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $6.76 million
  10. Prescription Drugs – 2010 Domestic Seizure Value: $5.66 million

To better protect yourself, from fakes, scams, and thieves, see my blogs 6 Steps to Avoiding Black Friday Scams, Cyber Monday Sales Skyrocket – Now Watch Those Credit Card Statements.


80% of Americans Will Purchase a Gift Card this Holiday Season; Know the Risks

December 6, 2011

A record number of gift card purchases are expected this holiday season according to an NRF survey conducted by BIGresearch which estimates 80.2% of American’s will purchase at least one gift card[i].

The research also indicates that holiday shoppers will spend average of $155.43 on gift cards, a 6.7% rise from $145.61 last year. If these numbers hold true, total spending on gift cards this holiday season will reach $27.8 billion dollars, a 12% increase over the $24.78 billion spent in 2010.

Unfortunately, the convenience of giving gift cards isn’t reflected in the actual use of the cards.

Why gift cards can be risky

Studies show that consumers lose billions of dollars from gift cards each year as cards are forgotten, misplaced, portions are taken as user fees, or the stores behind the cards go bankrupt.

Last year, (2010) the financial services research firm, The Tower Group, estimated consumers lost about $2.5 billion from gift cards. This loss stems from a number of issues:

  • According to a Consumer Reports poll, 27% of people who received gift cards last holiday season have yet to use them (Oct. 2011 data). Respondents were most likely to say this was because they did not have time (51%) or because they forgot about the gift card (41%)sub>[ii]. Lost or damaged cards are also responsible for a slice of the money lost from unused cards.
  • In spite of the 2010 Credit CARD Act that put stiffer laws into effect in August of 2010 intended to protect consumers from high usage fees, short expiration dates, and other practices. However, gift card issuers can still charge hefty fees to buy the cards (expect a fee ranging from $3-7 dollars per card).
  • Card issuers may also charge a fee for every month of inactivity; Visa gift cards for example lose $2.50 a month after 12 months of inactivity[iii].
  • Another loophole not covered in the Credit Card Act is that card issuers do not have to reimburse the value of the cards if they go bankrupt[iv]. To make matters worse, stores do not have to inform you that they have filed for bankruptcy when selling their gift cards – allowing them to collect substantial sums they will never have to repay and even after a company has gone bankrupt, gift card resale sites may still be selling cards to unsuspecting consumers[v].
  • Thieves may have tampered with the gift card before you even purchased it. Using a handheld scanner, thieves read the card’s code, and, when combined with the information on the front of the card, it gives the thieves all they need to redeem the card before you do. On cards without a fixed value they simply call the 800 number to see if it has been loaded with a dollar amount, and if so for how much.  Consumer reports recommends that to reduce the chances that thieves will drain the card, don’t use gift cards hanging on a rack, ask for one that is behind the counter, and if the card is preloaded,  ask the cashier to scan the card to see that the value is intact[vi].
  •  designed to make redeeming the full value of gift cards difficult or impossible.

When giving a gift card, think safety

The Consumers Union has lobbied petitioned the Federal Trade Commission on behalf of consumers asking the commission to go further in their protection of consumers holding gift cards particularly when companies are facing bankruptcy so that funds are set aside to cover the value of these cards. They also recommend that the FTC establish a registry of businesses who have filed for bankruptcy so that consumers have an easier way to gauge the risk of a gift-card purchase. Until these proposals become law, you still have to largely take your own precautions:

  1. Consumer reports says you can reduce the chances that thieves have compromised a gift card, by following a couple of simple steps: 1) don’t use gift cards hanging on a rack, ask for one that is behind the counter, and 2) if the card is preloaded, ask the cashier to scan the card to see that the value is still intact[vii].
  2. If purchasing gift cards online, always look at the site’s refund policy and keep your receipts in case of trouble and you need documentation.
  3. Check the solvency of the card issuer; this is particularly important for restaurants and smaller businesses, but bankruptcies have hit companies of all sizes.
  4. Look for the gotcha’s – excessive fees, penalties for not using the card within a specified time period, etc.

Not all gift cards are equal if you try turning gift cards into cash

There are now several websites like Plasticjungle, Giftcardrescue, and Cardpool that allow you to exchange your gift cards for cash for a percentage of their value – they also resell these cards at a discount.  What you’ll find however is that just because the dollar amounts on gift cards are equal, doesn’t mean the cards have equal value. These websites usually pay more for cards from huge chains like Home Depot or Wal-Mart where there is a large consumer interest in the resold cards, and less for cards from more niche businesses.  Because the value of a card can vary, be sure to look at several card exchange sites to get the best deal; you may get 95% of the card’s value, or you may only be offered 50%.

At the end of the day, a nice holiday card with cash inside is a far safer form of giving.


Cyber Monday Sales Skyrocket – Now Watch Those Credit Card Statements

December 3, 2011

It has been a profitable week for retailers. According to comScore, online sales rose 22% to reach a new all-time single day high of $1.25 billion. A separate report by IBM’s Benchmark research firm, reported a 33% Cyber Monday increase, but didn’t provide an actual dollar value.

The volume of internet sales highlights the comfort consumers have with online shopping, whether that is via computer, or increasingly, through mobile transactions. Last year 2.3% of Cyber Monday shopping occurred via mobile phone, this year that has increased to 6.6%[i].

Yet in spite of the convenience online shopping offers, too few consumers have adequately protected their devices or their information, too few carefully research the stores and store policies on sites they use, and during this busy season many will fail to closely monitor their credit card statements for signs of fraud. And the crooks are counting on these gaps.

To be safer when shopping see the blog I posted last week titled 6 Steps to Avoiding Black Friday Scams, but after you’ve shopped, stay alert. Watch your credit card statements. Check your credit scores. And act swiftly if something seems amiss.

Take 8 immediate steps if you discover that you have been the victim of identity theft:

  1. Contact the fraud departments of any one of the three consumer reporting companies:
    1. TransUnion: 1-800-680-7289;; Fraud Victim Assistance Division, P.O. Box 6790, Fullerton, CA 92834-6790
    2. Equifax: 1-800-525-6285;; P.O. Box 740241, Atlanta, GA 30374-0241
    3. Experian: 1-888-EXPERIAN (397-3742);; P.O. Box 9554, Allen, TX 75013
  2. Close any account that you know or believe has been taken over, or been opened by, ID thieves.  Your credit card companies have 24 hour call service where you can report the theft or abuse of your card. Check the statements of any other credit cards you have to see if the thieves have also compromised those cards.  Ask your credit card company to send you any dispute forms you may need to fill out.
  3. Check your credit report to look for credit cards or loans you did not open. By law you have the right to three free credit reports per year; from Experian, Transunion, and Equifax. If you have already used these free reports, pay the few bucks to get your credit scores checked again.All three credit bureaus work together through a website called so you can quest one, or all three reports at once in one of the following ways:
    1. Go to the Web site. Through this highly secure site, you can instantly see and print your credit report.
    2. Call toll-free: (877) 322-8228. You’ll go through a simple verification process over the phone after which they’ll mail the reports to you.
    3. Request by mail. If you live in certain states, fill out the request form and mail it to the Annual Credit Report Request Service, P.O. Box 105281, Atlanta, GA 30348-5281. (Get more details.)
  4. File a complaint with the FTC. A typical police report doesn’t contain the details about fraudulently opened accounts or accounts used by ID thieves. By reporting the ID theft to the FTC and filling out an ID Theft Complaint, you can add the supporting detail to a police report that is necessary to making it an Identity Theft Report.
    1. What should I know before filling out the FTC’s ID Theft Complaint Form?
    2. Instructions for completing the ID Theft Complaint Form
    3. What should I know once I’ve filled out and printed the FTC’s ID Theft Complaint Form?
  5. File a report with your local police. Filing a police report helps document that the crime occurred. Call your local law enforcement office and ask if you can come in and file the report in person or if this needs to be done online or by phone. Some jurisdictions are reluctant to let you file a report, so you may have to contact your state Attorney General’s office to learn whether the law requires the police to take your ID theft report. To find the contact information for the Attorney General in your state you can check
  6. Notify your health insurance carrier. Identity theft can also be used to commit medical fraud where someone poses as you to have medicines, checkups, even surgeries performed in your name. By contacting your insurance provider, you alert them to take extra precautions and can help prevent receiving a bill for someone else’s medical expenses.
  7. Set up a fraud alert. There are two kinds of fraud alerts, an ‘initial fraud alert’ that stays on your credit report for 90 days, and an ‘extended fraud alert’ that stays on your credit report for 7 years.You can set up an initial fraud alert the moment you suspect trouble – you can’t find your wallet, or you think you have been or will be a victim of ID theft (for example, you receive a notice from a company or bank you use notifying you that their data center has been breached and your information may be compromised).  With this initial alert in place, potential creditors have to take additional precautions to be sure that new credit isn’t given to the ID thieves by verifying your identity.

    To set up an extended fraud alert you have to have been a victim of ID theft and be able to prove this by showing one of the credit scoring companies your Identity Theft Report (see step #4). When an extended fraud alert is in place, creditors are required to contact you or meet you in person to verify your identity before they can extend credit.

  8. Stay alert. Watch for additional signs of identity theft like:
    1. False information on your credit reports, including your Social Security number, address(es), name or employer’s name.
    2. Missing bills or other mail. If your bills don’t arrive, or come late, contact your creditors. A missing bill may indicate that an ID thief has hijacked your account and changed your billing address to help hide the crime.
    3. Getting new credit cards sent to you that you didn’t apply for.
    4. Having a credit approval denied or being subjected to high interest rates for no apparent reason.
    5. Receiving calls or notices about past due bills for products or services you didn’t buy.

Once your identity has been stolen, you should also consider subscribing to a service that will constantly monitor your credit and alert you if something changes. Even though you change your credit card number, you aren’t likely to have changed companies, or changed your name, your social security number, your address, etc., and it is a stupid criminal who throws away such valuable information. In all likelihood, you will remain more vulnerable to future attacks and should monitor and protect accordingly.



6 Steps to Avoiding Black Friday Scams

November 21, 2011

The onslaught of holiday advertisements is in full swing, flooding mailboxes, inboxes, TV, websites, and mobile phones, and these ads will continue increasing until all last minute shopping has been done as retailers try to squeeze out every possible dollar in holiday revenue. And then there will be the after-holiday sales…

Chances are you will be among the 90% of consumers who say they expect to shop for gifts online this year, a 1% increase over last year. You might even be among the 15% who are expected to purchase gifts through a mobile device [i].  In fact, 60% of smartphone or tablet owners plan to use their device for a range of holiday shopping purposes this year, according to a new report by Prosper Mobile Insights.

This report indicates that among respondents saying they will use their mobile device for shopping this season, 60% expect to use their device as a “mobile mall,” with 56.7% primarily using their device to plan and research purchases, and one-third will use them to make at least 50% of their holiday purchases.

Whether you are shopping for others or for yourself, knowing how to get a great deal takes a lot more than just looking at the price tag.

Fortunately, learning 6 basic precautions will turn you into a savvy and much safer online shopper.

  1. Start with a secure internet environment. If your computer, tablet or cell phone isn’t protected from viruses and other malware your financial information and passwords will be stolen as you make purchases (as will everything else you store on your computer or do online). This concept is so basic, yet far less than half of the US population adequately protects their computers – and only 4% have security protection on their tablets or smartphones[ii].
    1. You must have anti-virus and anti-spyware software installed and up-to-date. If your computer or phone isn’t protected from Trojans, viruses and other malware, your financial information, passwords and identity will be stolen. If the cost of security software is prohibitive, at least use one of the free services available – just search on ‘best free antivirus’, and ‘best free mobile antivirus’ to see your options. If you don’t think you need mobile security software consider this; BullGuard security identified 2,500 different types of mobile malware in 2010[iii].
    2. Secure your internet connection. Make sure your computer’s firewall is on. If you use a wireless network it needs to be encrypted so someone who is lurking outside the house can’t collect your information. If you need a free firewall, search for ‘best free firewall’. Never use a public WiFi service for any type of financial transaction or other type of sensitive information transfer.
  2. Identify trustworthy companies. You need to either know the company – or know their reputation.
    1. If you already know the store, shopping their online store is very safe. If there’s a problem you can always walk into the local store for help. If you already know the online store’s reputation you will also be very safe.
    2. If you don’t know the store, it may still be the best option; you just need to take a few more steps. Search online for reviews from other users to see what their experiences were with the company, and conduct a background check by looking at sites that review e-stores (for example, Epinions, BizRate, Better Business Bureau). If the store isn’t listed as a legitimate site by one of these sources, or the store has a lot of negative reviews, DON’T SHOP THERE. It’s that easy.
  3. Know how to avoid scams. The holiday season is primetime for email and web scammers because they know millions of people will be spending billions of dollars online. To give you a sense of just how much money changes hands, last December (2010), $32.6 Billion dollars were spent on internet shopping sites[iv].  The best way to avoid scams is simple. NEVER, ever, click on a link in an email or on website advertisement no matter how reputable the host website or email sender may be. The website ad or email may be a really good fake, or the website or email account may have been hijacked by spammers. Instead, use a search engine and find the deal or store yourself – if you can’t find the deal on the legitimate store’s site you know that ‘offer’ was a scam. Click here to learn more about identifying scams.
  4. Protect personal information. Many ecommerce and mobile commerce sites encourage you to create a user account, but unless you truly plan to shop there often you’ll be better off not doing so. If you do choose to create a profile, do not let the store keep your financial information on file. All you really need to purchase something should be your name, mailing address, and your payment information.
    1. If the merchant asks for more information – like your bank account, social security, or driver’s license numbers, NEVER provide these. Some reputable companies will ask additional questions about your interests, but these should always be optional and you should be cautious about providing responses.
    2. Keep in mind that the company may not have strong security measures in place. The lack of strong security precautions in many companies is a real concern. Huge companies like Sony have been hacked multiple times and consumer’s passwords, names and financial information has been stolen. And unfortunately, many smaller businesses have even fewer safeguards in place to protect your data – so give them as little as possible! To learn more about these risks, see Small Business Owners Suffer from False Sense of Cyber Security.
  5. Make payments safely using a credit card or well respected payment service. Credit card purchases limit your liability to no more than $50 of unauthorized charges if your financial information is stolen, and the money in your bank account is untouched. Most debit cards do not offer this protection – and even when they do, you’re the one out of funds in the meantime. However, you probably don’t have a credit card, so striking a deal with a parent or guardian to put the charges on their card – with you handing them the cash – may be a good option.  Or, you can use a payment service like PayPal that hides your financial information from the online store and can be set up to take money out of your bank account. Do not use checks, cashier’s checks, wire transfers, or money orders as these carry high risks for fraud.
  6. Do your research. Just because a store claims to have the lowest price, doesn’t mean they actually have the best deal.
    1. Comparing the advertised price of an item doesn’t give you the full picture. You have to look at the final price – that includes any shipping, handling or taxes to see which deal may be really be the better bargain.  Some companies show lower prices, but make up the discount by charging high shipping fees.
    2. Check the company’s return policy. Some companies charge fairly steep return fees for shipping and restocking, so if you think the item may be returned factor this into the price as well.
    3. Look for online coupons or discounts. Lots of stores offer special deals if you just take the time to look for them. Typing the store’s name and ‘coupon’ is usually all it takes to discover whether extra discounts may apply.  
    4. No matter how great the ‘deal’ if you can’t afford it or it’s over your budget, it isn’t a deal. Learning financial responsibility now will set you up for financial security for the rest of your lives. And in spite of all the glittery ads, many of the best gifts don’t cost money.


Happy shopping!


Half of U.S. Drivers say Potential distraction issues Discourage Buying New Media Features in Cars

November 16, 2011

Concerns about driving distractions when using media features like navigation and Wi-Fi would deter half of U.S. users from purchasing these features according to a new survey from Altman Vilandrie & Company and uSamp.

In spite of safety concerns, the demand for new technologies in cars is strong, including media features like WiFi. This is especially true among younger drivers aged 18-24 who are twice as likely (40%) to say in-vehicle media capabilities influenced their most recent car purchase compared to older drivers.

The most desirable in car technology features? Voice-controlled navigation, real-time traffic updates, and the opportunity to turn their vehicles into wireless “hotspots” to enable internet access. Respondents were also interested in voice output–hearing emails, text messages, and social networking information.

The study also found that 70% of respondents have privacy concerns over the potential use of their driving data by car manufacturers and wireless carriers, though surprisingly those privacy concerns don’t extend to insurance providers. More than a third of respondents said they hoped to have their insurance rates determined by monitored driving habits.