Personal Finance 

Don’t Carry Your Social Security Card

Every month, go through you wallet or purse and ensure that everything in it has a reason for being there.

The other day, while standing in line at the DMV to take a photo for my driver’s license renewal, I saw a man pull his Social Security Card out of his wallet. As we all know, the Social Security card is no more than a regular piece of paper that, given years in a wallet, is bound to disintegrate. This guy’s Social Security card was in such sorry shape that it looked like it was torn from the Constitution. Years of sitting in his back pocket, for no good reason, had his card about a year away from being dust and there was little reason for him to carry it every day (in fact, new Social Security cards instruct you not to carry it on you).

Besides deterioration, another good reason not to carry the card, or anything you don’t use on a daily basis, is that you could lose your wallet or purse. If that unfortunate event happens, you have the burden of replacing or canceling cards that had no reason being in your wallet or purse in the first place. Added headache without any reason whatsoever.

So once a month, clean out your wallet or purse so Constanza doesn’t mistake it for his.

 Personal Finance 

Don’t Access Private Information from Public Computers

Our home recently lost Internet access because our Verizon FiOS cable modem/router died (after only a couple months!) and my wife sauntered over to the library next door to prepare her taxes while I was at class Monday night. As you can imagine, when she told me this, after she’d prepared her taxes, I got nervous that she had put all that sensitive information through one of the publicly accessible computers at the library. Fortunately I was wrong, she was merely using her own computer connected to their network and thus safe in this regard.

I segregate the world of “personal/private information” into sensitive and routine information. Sensitive information covers all financial and personally identifying information such as bank and brokerage accounts, business assets, and anything account that would cause considerably harm if compromised. Routine information covers everything else including email. Loss of a routine information account wouldn’t cause too much harm (I’d be furious though) and wouldn’t compromise sensitive accounts. This means that sensitive and routine accounts never share the same password, this is a crucial step.

Why do I do this? Publicly accessible computers, such as terminals at libraries and hotels, aren’t within your control and so you never know what’s been done to them. At worst, they have keyloggers installed, either software or hardware, that log your every keystroke. Those keystrokes can be replayed back at a later time for someone to gain access to your accounts.

Also, I can’t trust myself to clear the cache, cookies, and other information every single time (on Firefox, it’s easy, go to Tools -> Clear Private Data or hit CTRL-SHIFT-DEL). What if I’m lax and click “Remember Me?” and leave myself logged in? What if I tell Firefox to save the password out of habit? What if I simply don’t log out and the next person on gets access to my information? Security breaches aren’t always the cause of a malicious act, sometimes they’re caused by user error or mistake meeting an ethically-gray opportunist.

Chances of theft are low. I recognize that the chances of someone installing a keylogger on a hotel computer or the chances of me leaving myself logged in and the next person being an ethically-gray opportunist is slim, but I see it as not being worth it. 99.99% of the time, I won’t ever need to log into a brokerage or bank account at the hotel so why bother?

 Personal Finance 

Know What’s In Your Wallet or Purse

I had lunch with my beautiful wife yesterday at a local Baja Fresh, it’s something we don’t do often because her office is 45 minutes away, but we were able to yesterday because she had an appointment in the morning. As luck would have it, after we had parted ways she discovered that she left her purse behind! Fortunately, either someone had turned in the purse or one of the workers there picked it up, but Baja Fresh had it secure behind their counter for me to pick up a few minutes later. Whew! Disaster averted.

That made me think about the importance of capturing a snapshot of your wallet or purse, on a monthly basis, in the event that you do lose it. The first thing my wife said to me, after she explained it was missing, was that this never happens to her and it’s been a very long time since she’s misplaced her purse like this (she didn’t bring up the fact that she misplaced her license for about a week!); to which I thought to myself, “Of course not, this isn’t supposed to happen ever.” This underscores the importance of having a snapshot of your wallet or purse on a monthly basis.

I don’t think you should photocopy everything, that’s a waste of paper and an increased security risk. For the sake of simplicity, I’m just going to say purse from now on since it would likely contain a superset of what would be in a wallet (yes, I just basically said people with purses, i.e. predominately women, carry more stuff than people with wallets, i.e. predominately men; get over the sexism! :))

Here’s what I propose:

  • Photocopy your license and insurance card. If you have any other important documents in your purse, chances are you don’t need them so you don’t need to carry them around. Birth certificates, social security cards, and passports are probably not necessary daily items, leave those at home. If you must have them, keep photocopies instead of originals.
  • Record last 4 digits and customer service phone numbers for your credit cards. In the event you do lose your purse, you will want a list of all the cards in your purse along with the phone number you have to call to report the card stolen. The last thing you want to do is have to look up the phone numbers, so have them handy. Also, most of the time you can handle all the cards from one issuer in one call. If you have 2 Citi cards, you can handle the loss of both cards with one call to the Citi customer service line.
  • Record the cards that are actually in your purse. This is crucial because you don’t want to cancel a backup card you have in your desk drawer unless you absolutely have to. This is the one thing you have to keep as fresh as possible.

Update: I forgot about this when I originally posted this but the logic behind photocopying your license was that, should you lose it, you at least have a copy. When people travel, they often take photocopies of passports. While it won’t be “official,” people are oftentimes sympathetic to your situation and will cut you some slack as long as you can prove you had a driver’s license once.

Some resources suggest photocopying the front and back of every credit you have, it’s something I’ve done in the past but soon realized was completely unnecessary. Why collect all that information when all you really need is the last four digits and a phone number?

Take a snapshot of your wallet today because you never know when you’ll accidentally leave it behind in a Baja Fresh. 🙂


Stealing RFID Credit Card Data Is Easy!

Remember when someone actually needed to have your card before they could steal your data? With RFID, or radio frequency identification, all they need to be is near your card, with an $8 RFID reader, to get your information now! If you watch this episode of boing boing TV, you can see a $8 reader pull your card’s details from you without actually having your card. What can you get? Card name, cardholder’s name, and expiration date (probably more, you can transmit about 2 kB of data) – or essentially everything off the face of your card.

If you remember back to physics class, electricity and magnetism are inter-related. A magnetic field around a conductive material will generate an electric charge. If you want to get real nostalgic, remember the right hand rule? 🙂 Anyway, RFID works off that principle. The reader sends out a magnetic signal that generates a current in the RFID chip. The current powers the chip and gets it to send out a signal that the reader will detect. The signal is encrypted, that’s not the problem, the problem is that it can be decrypted by the reader, a reader you can buy for $8. The security flaw has nothing to do with RFID technology, the failure is in the implementation by the credit card industry.

The technology expert in the clip, Pablos Holman, does point this out by saying the decryption should happen back at a secure location rather than at the point of sale and I suspect this is a cost cutting measure on the credit card industry’s part. By decrypting at the POS, they get to reuse their systems (i.e. use RFID on the cheap) as-is rather than building a mechanism for decrypting the data somewhere down the data stream. I’m 99.9% sure that someone in the entire industry has thought of the scenario in which someone buys an $8 reader and starts stealing data but it’s cheaper to fix the fraud than develop a better system.

As to the concerns that you could walk into a Starbucks and steal everyone’s data with a reader augmented with a powerful antennae, that’s not 100% accurate because an RFID tag has a read range based on its frequency. Smart cards are said to use high-frequency tags, which have a read range of 3′ or less. So while you could activate every card in the room, you’d have to wander within 3′ of everyone (still easy, just not as easy as turning it on and standing there) to grab the data.

If you want to learn more about RFID, check out the Association for Automatic Identification and Mobility’s FAQ on RFID.

 Your Take 

Your Take: New $5 Bill & The Huge Purple 5

Front of the New $5 Bill

Check out the latest super-anti-counterfeit bill to hit the streets, it’s none other than the fiver and it debuted today with much fanfare over its added security feature and that humongous purple FIVE located on the back (picture below). Many of the added security features come from higher denominated bills (such as more watermarks and a security strip) and I was surprised that they would revamp a $5 with these security features, but what do I know. Here’s the back of the bill.

Back of the New $5 Bill

I’m a fan of the increased use of microprinting, where small, difficult to reproduce, text is repeated in numerous places. On the front, Five Dollars” is written inside the left and right borders. E Pluribus Unum (“Out of Many, One.” in Latin) is printed at the top of the shield in the Great Seal. USA is printed between the columns of the shield. Finally, on the back, USA FIVE is printed on the edge of the purple 5.

One cool thing I didn’t know was that the little yellow “05”s are arranged in a EURion constellation. Many color photocopiers will refuse to copy a document if it detects a EURion constellation pattern. Here I thought the “05”s were just randomly scattered. Many currencies use this EURion constellation pattern.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of the big purple 5 but it’s said that it is designed that way for the visually impaired, what do you think about that purple 5? Ugly? Pretty?

(Images from US Bureau of Engraving & Printing)

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