President's Message: Be Sure You Are Protected!, by Kim Charlson

It seems that we hear daily accounts of data breaches taking place at major corporations, such as Target and Yahoo, putting at risk our identities and online security. I have heard from many people who are blind around the country who have experienced firsthand identity theft or have had their economic security jeopardized by a corporate security breach compromising their financial independence and way of life. As people who are blind, we often rely to some extent on the assistance of others to conduct our financial business. Whether you rely on a family member, friend, or volunteer to read mail, write checks, make deposits or withdrawals from your bank or ATM machine, I encourage you to be vigilant and take steps to protect your economic identity.
 
Let me share with you some resources that you may use to protect yourself from identity theft. On Feb. 12, 2013, a "New York Times" editorial noted that one in five consumers have confirmed errors in their credit reports. Imagine how many consumers are unaware of credit problems and, in the meantime, their identities and financial reputations are being compromised. This startling news came from a detailed report issued in December 2012 by the United States Federal Trade Commission (FTC), and should serve as a reminder for all of us to check our credit reports.
 
As a result of structured negotiation by the American Council of the Blind, the California Council of the Blind, and attorneys Lainey Feingold and Linda Dardarian, free credit reports are now available for people who are blind or visually impaired in braille, large print, audio CD and online in an accessible format. A free credit report can be ordered from any of the three credit reporting agencies, Equifax, Experian, or TransUnion, by calling toll-free, 1-877-322-8228. This is an automated system. After entering identifying information, including your telephone number and Social Security number, callers will be given the option of receiving reports in braille, large print or audio formats. The reports will also be sent separately in print. The alternative format version you select should arrive within two or three days of the print copy. The request to select your format comes toward the end of the process.
 
You should be aware that while credit reports (also known as credit disclosures) are free through the toll-free number above, credit scores are not. Information on how to request credit scores will be provided when ordering the initial reports. Credit scores should also be provided in braille, large print, and audio formats to those who order the initial reports in these formats.
 
Credit reports delivered on line have been designed to be accessible in accordance with Web Content Accessibility Guidelines. They are available only through Annualcreditreport.com – the official web site operated by the three credit reporting agencies. You should be aware that not all sites that claim to provide free reports actually have free reports, and certainly not all of those sites are accessible.
 
For the past five years the three credit reporting agencies have been very committed to providing credit report information in accessible formats for people with visual impairments. The companies have also been quick to resolve any problems that may arise, including issues with inaccessible captchas that were quickly corrected with the substitution of an accessible captcha option for logging into the site and requesting a free credit report.
 
There are some simple things you can do to protect yourself from identity theft or compromise of your financial security. As a person with vision loss, it is critical that you educate and empower yourself to avoid being a victim of this type of crime.
 
According to the U.S. Federal Trade Commission, identity theft can occur from someone stealing your mail, wallet or purse. Regrettably, identity theft can also occur when friends, family, or a volunteer reader steal your information. Another way your identity can be compromised is online with malware, data breaches, or spam e-mail such as those "phishing" e-mails that are disguised as legitimate offers from reputable companies. These e-mails instruct you to click on a link and provide confidential information like your date of birth or Social Security number. Do not respond to these messages, and if you think it looks legitimate, take the extra step and call the company to verify that they sent the message to you. This way you can confirm if it is real or a scam.
 
Here are some practical steps you can take to protect yourself against identity theft.

  • Empty your purse or wallet. Only carry things that you need. Don't carry your Social Security card or multiple credit cards, just the essential ones.
  • Shred mail and other documents containing personal information. Purchase a small shredder and shred your medical documents, financial statements after paying bills, debit card receipts, or any other items that have bank or personal information included, instead of just throwing them away.
  • Select clerical assistants, advisors, and volunteer readers very carefully. This requires sensitivity on your part, because you certainly don't want to insult or offend those you have come to rely on. Being confident that your financial security is safe can be a delicate path to travel. Reaching out to your local blindness agency to see if they have a volunteer placement program is a good idea. Most programs conduct criminal background checks or a CORI check to ensure that the volunteer has a clean record. Be aware, however, that just because a CORI has been conducted doesn't guarantee that someone might not avail themselves of your vital information. Remain vigilant over your financial business and don't relinquish your authority.  You might also try having two people assisting you with important paperwork and divide tasks between them and have them cross-check one another's work. This safeguards your information so one person does not have sole access to your vital information other than you.
  • Don't give out your personal information unless you are confident with whom you are dealing. These types of requests can happen either in person or over the telephone.
  • Monitor your accounts. This should be your checking, savings, investment, retirement or insurance accounts. You can check online. Many financial institutions have telephone systems that allow you to check your accounts by phone.

Since identity theft is happening more and more online, here are a few tips to assist you in remaining safe:

  • Keep antivirus software current on your computer. When your antivirus software lapses, it opens the door for all kinds of phishing e-mails, malware and viruses to enter your computer's hard drive.
  • Be careful using social networks. Don't give out too much personal information on social media sites such as Facebook or Twitter.
  • Take the time to set up your privacy controls in your browser so only people you want will have access to your information.
  • Use unique or difficult to guess passwords. Passwords that contain a mix of capital letters, numbers and/or symbols are more complicated to crack.

At this time of year when people are thinking about financial issues and taxes, those of us who are blind or visually impaired must take extra precautions to protect our private and confidential financial information. Utilize the available resources, including a free annual credit report in an accessible format. While doing so, remember and be proud of the advocacy victory ACB helped to make possible for anyone who is blind or visually impaired to maintain their financial independence and credibility.