Credit Breaches Are Hazardous to Your Financial Health

Published in Pawtucket Times, October 17, 2014

It seems to happen all the time. Just recently Target Corporation, Home Depot, Dairy Queen and Neiman Marcus – followed by Michaels, and more recently JPMorgan Chase and Kmart – found their data systems being breached. I thought that I had dodged the bullet from being a victim until last month when I received a letter from my local savings and loan warning me about a potential security breach affecting my credit card.

Data breaches and hacking annually affect millions of Americans, costing billions of dollars and countless hours for consumers to correct problems resulting from identity theft and fraud that results in their checks bouncing and being accessed late fees.
Data Breaches Not a Rare Occurrence

What exactly is a data breach? Simply put, a data breach occurs when a company’s database, typically containing customer information, is hacked by sophisticated malware programs that can infiltrate a company’s network, sometimes for months before being noticed.

“Not that long ago, we were taught to always know where your wallet or purse was to ensure we didn’t fall victim to a pickpocket. Yesterday’s common street thief is today’s computer hacker, and it is often months before you realized they’ve virtually picked your pocket,” said Attorney General Peter Kilmartin.

According to the Rhode Island Attorney General, his staff has been busy in the past year informing consumers about the data breaches at some of best-known retail and financial companies. He says last year, there were multiple reports of massive data breaches at the nation’s largest corporations. According to a recent survey, 43 percent of companies have suffered one data breach this past year, and 60 percent say they’ve been struck by multiple data breaches in the last two years.
“In today’s technology–driven and paperless retail marketplace, it is inevitable that some, if not all, of your personal and financial information – credit card and banking information, email, and social security number – will be compromised,” warns Kilmartin.

Congressman James Langevin has been a leader on the issue of cyber security, and is leading efforts inside the Washington Beltway. “Stories of public data breaches are becoming increasingly common, and if a Fortune 500 company is susceptible to these types of breaches, we can be sure that similar attacks are possible among other retailers and businesses,” said Congressman Jim Langevin, the co-founder and co-chair of the Congressional Cybersecurity Caucus. “I have been sounding the alarm on cybersecurity for years, and I fear the consequences if we delay any further the steps needed to strengthen our technology infrastructure,” said Langevin.

The Democratic lawmaker, serving the second congressional district since 1991, says, “I am particularly concerned about the potential for cyber attack against critical infrastructure, including our power grid, wastewater management and banking and health care systems, just to name a few. All of these essential services are tied into technology, and it is going to take both a strong commitment from government and a continued partnership between public and private industry in order to get us where we need to be on cyber security. Securing these networks must be a priority, and I believe it is a crucial component of our national and economic security strategies.”

Kilmartin says make no doubt about it, data breaches are a crime, but law enforcement has significant hurdles to overcome when investigating cyber crimes. “Companies that have been targets of recent data breaches are working with federal law enforcement authorities to investigate how the breach happened and who is responsible,” he notes, stressing that early evidence shows that most of the sophisticated criminal enterprises that commit cyber crimes operate outside of the United States, often in Eastern Europe. “The hackers are out of the reach of traditional law enforcement and US Courts, but that has not stopped local, state and federal authorities from investigating,” he says.

Consumers Must Become Their Own Watchdog

“Consumers in today’s world need to continually monitor their electronic purchases, their personal medical information, as well as their banking records. Consumers can follow all the rules to protect their information, and if a business or other entity entrusted with this information is vulnerable, consumers, through no fault of their own, can still be impacted. Many times, a consumer’s first contact with law enforcement may be dealing with the aftermath of a data breach or identity theft. Please know that we are there to help you and will thoroughly investigate to resolve these crimes,” stated Colonel Steven G. O’Donnell, Superintendent of the Rhode Island State Police.

Kilmartin also confirmed that he and attorneys general in several states are looking into these data breaches and hope to get answers from the companies targeted as to how and why they took place. “There are multi-state investigations by attorneys general into how these companies left consumer information vulnerable to an attack,” he said, noting, “as consumer advocates, we are determined to get to the bottom of these data breaches and to work with the companies to better protect the consumer.”

Kilmartin believes it is up to consumers to be their own watchdog: “While companies and law enforcement officials are trying to put an end to this trend, the only way someone can protect themselves is to be vigilant in monitoring their personal and financial information. And by that, I mean check your banking and credit card statements regularly and limit how much information you share with companies.”

Keeping Credit Card Thieves At Bay

Kilmartin says, “I always tell consumers that the best way to protect yourself from scams is education. Being wary of potential scams, and being a savvy consumer is the best way to stop a scam artist in their tracks.” He offers the following common sense tips to protect your credit:

Check your credit card and debit card statements regularly, and on a line-by-line basis. One may think to only look for large unauthorized charges, but thieves may place a small charge – only a few dollars – to check if the card is active. If that charge goes unnoticed, thieves will then make a large unauthorized purchase. Report all suspicious charges, no matter how small. And, check your statements every day if possible. “It may be too late to recoup some or all of your money if you don’t report it immediately,” said Kilmartin.

If you notice an unauthorized charge, report it to your financial institution immediately, cancel the card and have the bank issue you a new one.

Kilmartin recommends consumers take advantage of free credit monitoring many affected companies are offering. “Companies who have been impacted by a data breach don’t want to lose customer loyalty. Many offer up to one free year of credit monitoring for any consumer who shopped there during the breach,” he adds.

Consider adding a fraud alert to your credit report file to protect your credit information. A fraud alert can make it more difficult for someone to get credit in your name because it tells creditors to follow certain procedures, which may include contacting you directly, before authorizing the credit card, says Kilmartin, noting that while this may delay your ability to obtain credit immediately, it will protect you from someone fraudulently opening a credit card in your name.

Kilmartin urges Rhode Islanders to be suspicious of emails, phone calls, or text messages claiming to be from your bank or a retailer you shopped at. Hackers may not have gained access to all the information they need, and will often use the information they do have, like name, date of birth or credit card number to convince you to part with even more sensitive information, such as passwords or social security numbers. When in doubt, call your financial institution directly with questions. The phone number is usually on the back of credit cards and debit cards.

Update your computer’s anti-virus software. Just as hackers have wormed their way into secure databases at large-scale companies, they can worm their way into your computer.

Change your passwords. The most basic way to stop an intruder is to lock the door. Set strong passwords and don’t reuse them for different accounts, especially for accounts that involve your banking or credit card information.

Go “old school” and pay with cash or check. While we have become accustomed to using credit and debit cards to make everyday purchases, every company still takes U.S. currency.

Under federal law, you are entitled to one free copy of your credit report every 12 months from each of the three nationwide credit reporting agencies. You may obtain a free copy of your credit report by going to http://www.annualcreditreport.com or by calling (877) 322-8228.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket writer who covers aging, health care, and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.

When its Time to Take Away Mom and Dad’s Car Keys

Published in Pawtucket Times, April 12, 2013

On May 2, 2003, Rhode Island State Rep. Mabel Anderson was looking to buy her husband George a surprise birthday present from one of his favorite stores, Home Depot. As she was walking and pushing a shopping carriage near the front entrance of the huge box store located in the Bristol Place Shopping Center in South Attleboro, Massachusetts, an 86-year old driver getting ready to exit his parking space, accidently shifted his vehicle into ‘reverse’ rather than ‘drive,’ stepped on the gas peddle. This jolted the vehicle in the wrong direction, running over Anderson. She was transported to the nearby hospital, where hours later, she would be pronounced dead. Anderson’s tragic death almost a decade ago continues to be played out today in communities across the nation.

Aging baby boomers, coping with a decline in their driving skills because of the aging process, keep driving well into their twilight years, when for safety’s sake, they should just retire the keys.

Driving Skills Decline in Later Years

According to the National Highway Safety Administration, in 2010, older individuals made up 17 percent of all traffic accidents and 8 percent of all people injured in crashes during that year. Compared to 2009, fatalities among this age group increased by 3 percent, 1 percent for these older persons being injured.

Meanwhile, John Paul, Manager of Public Affairs and Traffic Safety at AAA Southern New England, details research findings indicating that driving can be dangerous in your very later years. The report released by Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh and the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety, found the rate of deaths involving drivers 75 to 84 “is about three per million miles driven – on par with teen drivers,” says Paul. But, once they pass age 85, vehicular fatality rates jump to nearly four times that of teens, he says.

Older motorists lose their ability to drive when the aging process kicks in. For these individuals, driving skills lessen because of poor vision caused by cataracts, glaucoma and macular degeneration, compounded with poor hearing, lack of flexibility, limited range of motion and reduced reaction time make the complex tasks associated with driving more difficult. Oncoming cognitive impairments, such as Alzheimer’s Disease and dementias, can also impact one’s ability to drive safely.

As older driver fatalities increase and the death toll tied to older-driver accidents skyrocket, a growing number of states are looking at licensing restrictions as a way to delicately approach this complicated issue.

Like many aging advocates, Gerry Levesque, AARP’s State Coordinator for Driver Safety Program, states that not all seniors are equally affected as they age. “One may lose the necessary skills needed to drive safely at age 60, while another will not lose those skills until 90”, states the 66-year-old Coventry resident.

“For older adults, losing driving privileges can be translated as a loss of independence,” notes Levesque. If this occurs, family or public transportation may not be available to replace the lack of transportation. “Older people may feel stranded or abandoned when they give up their keys,” says Levesque, noting that driving allows an older adult to pick up their prescriptions, shop for groceries or get out to socialize at the bridge club, bingo parlor or simply to be with family and friends.

“One thing that seniors have that the younger generation does not is a lifetime of driving. While they are losing physical abilities, they do have a wealth of experience from their years of driving,” adds Levesque.

Coping with an Aging Population that Drives

Over the years, states have grappled with the age-charged issue of restricting licenses of seniors not wishing to stir up their wrath. Aging advocates oppose any “blanket” solution to this problem that calls for licensing restrictions, rather it be made on a case-by-case basis. They say age should not be used as a “predictor” of unsafe driving.

In Rhode Island, the Division of Motor Vehicles (DMV) prorates its license renewal cycle for person’s age 71 and older. If you are 75 years of age or older, you license will be valid for two years. At license renewal time, the older person is required to pass a vision test or provide a valid medical examination certificate. A person’s physical or mental fitness to operate a motor vehicle is reviewed by DMV’s Medical Advisory Board whenever a case is brought to its attention by law enforcement, a physician or a family member.

With a growing aging population, Rhode Island’s Department of Transportation (RIDOT) has moved to tackle senior driving issues head-on. Two years ago, this state agency began to install a series of reflective markers or “roadside delineators” installed on the sides of roads as well as mounted on small posts and on top of concrete barriers. Especially geared for older drivers, these improvements were made to assist in making night-time driving easier and safer, while also aided driving during adverse weather

In addition to these improvements, RIDOT has installed cable guard rails along narrow medians on the Interstate where none previously existed. This safety feature significantly reduces the occurrence of head-on impacts with opposing traffic. State transportation officials have also made improvements to rural roads, by adding rumble strips, signing and roadside reflectors to help reduce road departure crashes.

Sharpening Your Driving Skills

AARP along with the AAA Southern New England recognized the thorny issues surrounding restrictive licensing and have developed special training courses to help older motorists freshen their skills to help them drive more safety, thus reducing the their risk of having their licenses revoked by state authorities.

AAA’s Senior Defense Driving Program (www.seniordriving.aaa.com) provides information about the aging process and its impact on a person’s ability to drive. The program gives tips on how a person can compensate for these changes and drive safer for a longer period of time. Additionally, a self-administered program, called “Roadwise Review” provides confidential and instant feedback on performance in key areas, allowing individuals to see how changing visual, mental and physical conditions do impact driving. In addition, the Auto Club’s “Roadwise RX” allows older drivers to look at the interaction between medications and driving.

AARP’s Safe Driving Program, (http://www.aarp.org/home-garden/transportation/driver_safety) the nation’s first and largest refresher course for drivers age 50 and older, has helped millions of drivers sharpen their driving skills. The four-hour program teaches defensive driving techniques, new traffic laws and rules of the road, as well as (and more importantly) how to adjust your driving style to those age-related changes to vision, hearing and reaction time. After successfully completing the Aging Group’s Safe Driving Program held in Rhode Island, the attendee is awarded a certificate of completion. The state mandates that the insurance carrier give a discount on their liability coverage to the policy holder with this certificate.

Surrendering the Keys

Ultimately, the burden may well fall on the family or the older motorist’s physician who must take the keys away from the driving-challenged senior for not only the driver’s safety, but for the safety of those sharing the road as well.

In the late 1990s my mother began exhibiting signs of dementia, and yet my father could not stop my mother from driving. The only solution appeared to come from making a call to the Texas Department of Motor Vehicles (TDMV) for help.

Several times mother got lost driving around our neighborhood, a once familiar area for her, ultimately ending up on the dangerous LBJ Freeway, miles from home and confused. With her driving skills rapidly deteriorating, my siblings took on the task of making that hard decision of taking the car keys away from her. After several meetings with TDMV officials, the agency finally took away her driver’s license.

As difficult as this decision was for my family to make, ultimately for my mother who was in the mid-to-late stages of dementia, did not realize that she had lost her driving privileges and her precious keys.

Kristi Grigsby, Vice President of Content of AgingCare.com, agrees that taking the keys away from an elderly parent is one of the most difficult decisions that family caregivers must make. “The loss of independence can be traumatic for a senior,” she says, noting that some elderly parents can accept the life-altering change; others understandably can not.

Grigsby warns that the consequences of doing nothing far outweigh the wrath of an angry parent. “Stories of tragedies that could have been avoided had those keys been taken away are sometimes all the inspiration needed to stand firm and make a painful decision with confidence,” she says.

For more information about taking the keys away from an elderly parent go to http://www.agingcare.com/Articles/Taking-the-Keys-What-To-Do-If-Mom-or-Dad-Won-t-Give-Them-Up-112307.htm. Information on this web site, AgingCare.com,
connects people caring for their elderly parents with experts on aging issues and caregivers who visit this site help family members make the best care decisions for older loved ones.

Herb Weiss, LRI ’12, is a Pawtucket-based freelance writer who covers aging, health care and medical issues. He can be reached at hweissri@aol.com.