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Cost Benefit Balancing Act: Identity or Privacy? There is a Difference! – July 2016 Newsletter

We all make choices about how to spend our time and energy, and usually hope to strike a balance between effort and results. In the world of organizing I see this demonstrated as a race, sometimes in the form of a relay and sometimes it’s more like a photo finish.

A relay looks like this:  Once the stuff in the closet falls on me I’ll pull it out and straighten it up. One “runner” spends no effort and the other does it all. Not a balanced team, even if you happen to be both members.

The photo finish: I’ll clip these coupons every week, store them in a folder in the kitchen and then toss them when they expire. Even with a photo at the end, to prove you ran your hardest, there is no discernible winner here. (UNLESS you really enjoy playing with scissors.)

That’s about as far as I can extend the race metaphor, so let’s return to the balance of work and result, which is the real point.  Both of the examples above are little chores that illustrate a choice about the value of your time and attention. In the first, resistance to maintaining order leads to a bigger job; one which could include breakage and trauma, as well as frustration. In the second, well-meant actions do not produce a desired reward.

Another huge imbalance between effort and reward is generated by “identity theft anxiety.”  I’ve wanted to explore this in more detail for a while, as I see so many otherwise balanced and reasonable people fall into an abyss of terror about it. On one website I even found an article that was titled: “1 in 5 Americans would rather break a Bone than have their Identity Stolen”.

My hope is that this newsletter will clarify these concerns and help you make conscious choices about how much energy you spend protecting yourself…and just how frightened you ought to be by it all.

First; there is a difference between identity and privacy. Identity theft refers to the fraudulent use of info that describes you – it is not identity theft for someone to simply know about your bills. They have to USE it.

You protect your identity by safeguarding a few key pieces of info and being vigilant about accounts, so that others cannot use them. The list of information that is really vulnerable is pretty short, and this is where your efforts are reasonable. This is what you do want to tear up and protect, if not shred:

  • Your social security number.
  • Active account numbers for credit, banks, loans and insurance.
  • IRS information

It’s also important to be aware of how you use credit cards, do you trust the staff at a restaurant or not?

(An aside: in Europe they usually bring you the machine!)

Everything else, even information that is sensitive, is about privacy, not identity theft.

What does this mean, you might ask? So what, if it’s sensitive I want to protect it! Well, great, but you might want to consider this difference anyway, and choose how much you like separating mail and papers, and then storing vast quantities of paper that you never look at because you are afraid to get rid of it.

Personal information usually cannot be used to steal your identity all by itself. To get and use your identity more is required, unless the theft is being done at a much higher level.

It means that most of that other information you are protecting can be found in other ways, which you cannot control. Read on, if you dare.

I went and found some statistics on the Bureau of Justice website.

86% of all ID theft is about banking and credit cards, and this happens at the level of the bank, or institution and is usually a larger scale operation – not run by people in the street ransacking your mail box, even less a systematic assault on a recycling center. Half the people that do experience this kind of fraud get it resolved in 2 days or less. But that is because they respond to an alert from the bank OR are actually keeping track of their account statements with paper or on-line.

The real way to avoid this kind of identity fraud is to be aware of your accounts and that means facing your statements. Sorry, but I really think this is what scares people.

The poll that claimed “1 in 5 would rather break a bone than have their identity stolen” might really read…than do their filing and understand their finances.

Let’s consider the actual identity theft of your credit card number. The hassle of talking to credit card companies and changing a bunch of your passwords and setting up new accounts is daunting. Even so, most institutions will not hold a consumer responsible for credit card fraud, so the hassle is not usually financial. This particular nightmare does not come out of your garbage can or recycling.

In order to get into an account like that an identity thief needs more than your account number from a statement.  They need other personal information as well as your password. When it does happen it is initiated somewhere else. If you personally know someone that suffered for months due to such fraud, my question will be: were they keeping track of their accounts? Is there any real link between their discarded mail and this attack? Even if you and your neighbors see someone hijacking mail boxes, has there ever been a real event that you can trace to this activity?

Yes, it’s creepy but unlikely to be the source of actual identity theft.

But it’s a lot more popular to worry about bad people getting hold of your utility bills.  I know that this can happen, and a true evil master mind might be able to piece together some juicy stuff from your garbage, but consider: this is a small percentage of the issue, and you risk a lot more when you get into your car every day.

After banking and credit card fraud the statistics say that identity theft happens at the level of Internet fraud, employment related scams, loan fraud and then insurance based theft. The numbers do not even mention mailbox and recycling theft.

What this says to me: 1 in 5 Americans care more about the illusion of privacy than their own bones.

In that case, a locking mailbox might seem like a great idea. Just please remember – putting an extra step into getting the mail is enough to delay many of my clients from picking it up, let alone opening the envelopes and reading the statements.

Here is where the cost-benefit balance is off.  Trying to hide your name, address, and email and phone number is wasted effort.  All of that information is for sale on the Internet. It just is. If you do much of anything on-line you have a profile whether you like it or not. The question is how much you are willing to do to safeguard this information. I doubt many of us really want to live off the grid, so the real choice is how you’ll manage the exposure you do have.

The energy and time you spend on hiding it is yours to determine, I have seen people carefully use felt tips to scribble out their addresses before recycling envelopes.

More important is understanding that your medical records, your utilities and your memberships are not sacred – those accounts can themselves be attacked. This Includes companies that will take your money and say they are protecting you. Even Equifax was compromised last year.

The take away is: Choose your battles!  Keep what you can organize effectively, and recycle the rest.

An aside about receipts: the last 4 digits of your card number are NOT ENOUGH for someone to hack your life. You can recycle or better yet (because of the thermal paper) just garbage receipts that are not tax related.

The point is that big institutions are the real targets.  Go check out ID Theft Center   for a list of breached companies. It’s instructive if you think there is real safety anywhere.

I know this is not exactly good news. My goal is to save you energy and re-balance that cost – benefit equation. If you stay on top of your mail and statements, you’ll be able to manage most fraud issues that affect you directly.

Then you can relax and focus on things that will really improve your quality of life, like that closet!