Be Safe, Part I: When Good Scams Go Bad

Staff Writer Tech

Vero Pepperrell writes… Tell me now off the top of your head, in how many places do you keep personal data? Include everything, your passport, your credit cards, your most important passwords, even the photos of the last Christmas party where you were dancing the Macarena with that guy from Finance. And don’t forget those backup CDs you made but never put away somewhere safe! We all lose track sometimes, don’t we?

In April, a young man called Amir decided to sell a broken laptop on eBay. This kind of thing unfortunately happens regularly, and the scammers never get what they deserve.  Or almost never.

Clever scammers can get away with it, but unfortunately for our friend Amir, he wasn’t clever, he lost track of very important things… The laptop he sold was broken, but the hard drive remained intact. And the buyer? Now, him, he was clever…

The buyer, known as "Tom, The Laptop Guy", created a website for Amir. It never crossed Amir’s mind that his data was still easily accessible and that he may be selling a lot away along with the broken laptop.

On the laptop’s hard drive, Amir left the following:

  • A scan of his passport (he was born in Milton Keynes),
  • His bank details,
  • His mum’s bank details,
  • Multiple copies of his CV (all with different GCSE grades, the cheater!),
  • Full access to MSN and Hotmail (automatically signed in).
  • Lots of weird stuff, like foot fetish porn, photos of ladies’ legs taken with his camera phone on the Tube and some embarrassing webcam photos of himself!

Now, you and I don’t plan on scamming strangers (I hope) but we do sell/lend/give things away occasionally. Ever wondered whether your dodgy Macarena photos on your memory card were really erased when you hit "Format" before giving it away because you’d bought a newer camera?  Last weekend, using some of the most basic image recovery software, I discovered that the photos I thought I’d erased a long time ago were still there! There were no compromising photos (thankfully!) but any Joe Shmoe could have documented an entire summer of my life with that single memory card.

Without becoming paranoid and avoiding all forms of technology, what can we do to protect our personal data? Much of our information is now available in digital format, which means it can be duplicated and shared easily, so it’s worth keeping close tabs on where and how you share it.

Tips to keep your personal information safe:

  • Shred letters and paperwork with your name on it before throwing it out or recycling it
  • Put your hand or your wallet over your other hand to hide your PIN as you enter it (if at an outdoor cash, have a look over your shoulder to be sure no dodgy chav is looking over your shoulder)
  • If a cash machine looks like it’s been tampered with, don’t risk it and go to a safer cash point
  • Don’t enter your bank details on websites you don’t completely trust, and ensure the security certificate matches the site address
  • Keep passports and important personal papers locked up in a safe and keep a tally of the cards in your wallet (so you can easily and quickly cancel and replace them if your wallet gets stolen) Your bank most likely offers a service where they can record and replace cards for you, like HSBC’s Card Guard Protection
  • If you use USB keys to carry business data, encrypt your files when possible and keep the damn key close to yourself. The boss wouldn’t be pleased to know you’ve lost a copy of the company’s top secret projects while at a conference filled with your competitors, would he? (more from the BBC on this topic)
  • Use common sense – Before you sign up, agree to or hand over your details for any service or transaction, take a step back and question whether it’s a good idea or not.

Do you think this is all rubbish and your good karma will protect you? Do you keep your passport in a shoebox? Or do you lock everything up in a safe?

Next week, part II of "Be Safe": Women in online communities like MySpace or dating sites – Is it worse to be complacent or paranoid about them?

By Staff Writer | July 28th, 2006

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