Do you trust the Internet?

by Sandra Foyt on January 9, 2008

in Tech Tales

180px-hal_brain_room605.jpgA woman, whom I respect and admire, called to ask me to erase her email from my address book.  She feared that sharing her email address would make her vulnerable to spam and identity theft.   I suspect that she feared my blog would somehow contaminate her email address.

At first, I was shocked that anyone would be afraid to release their email address.  How can you be a modern, well-informed person who takes full advantage of the resources that are available on the Internet if you are afraid to share your email address with someone you’ve known for years?  On the other hand, is there a reason to be afraid to sign up for blogs, or any other kind of web resource?

Most writers about the web laud the current shift to individual empowerment, where anyone can create media content.  Of course , there are plenty of conspiracy theorists who remind us of the villainous HAL, the supercomputer of Space Odyssey fame.  There are those watchdogs who speak up about the dangers of “trusted computing.”  And then there are those who point out legitimate areas for concern about the perils of plugging into the supercomputer highway.

In a recent Wired (Jan. 2008) interview, Nicholas Carr, former executive editor of Harvard Business Review and author of The Big Switch: Rewiring the World, from Edison to Google, was asked:

Wired: What happened to the Web undermining institutions and empowering individuals?

Carr: Computers are technologies of liberation, but they’re also technologies of control.  It’s great that everyone is empowered to write blogs, upload videos to You Tube, and promote themselves on Facebook.  But as systems become more centralized – as personal data becomes more exposed and data-mining software grows in sophistication – the interests of control will gain the upper hand.  If you’re looking to monitor and manipulate people, you couldn’t design a better machine.

Wired: Back to the future – HAL lives!

Carr: The scariest thing about Stanley Kubrick’s vision wasn’t that computers started to act like people but that people had started to act like computers. We’re beginning to process information as if we’re nodes; it’s all about the speed of locating and reading data. We’re transferring our intelligence into the machine, and the machine is transferring its way of thinking into us.

Machine Intelligence 

Well, it’s true that many of us are using computers to appear smarter than ever.  For example, although I recognized the reference to HAL, I couldn’t remember the name of the movie where the computer takes over (even though I watched it many, many times.)  Thanks to Google, I had the name back in seconds. 

Yesterday, my son asked me what is “Erethizon Dorsatum,” a chapter title in Poppy(a children’s fantasy book by Avi?)  I was able to quickly answer his question.  Googling Poppy, I also found lots of resources for extending his understanding of the book including: book reviews, illustrations, language arts units, and a complete vocabulary list.  It’s easy to use the Internet to deepen our understanding of books.

I’m not afraid to use modern technology to process information, especially if I can gain knowledge that enables me to learn and grow.  I will not fear HAL.

Data Mining

Getting back to my friend’s fear of email sharing, she is right to question where to put your email.  It is true that there are sophisticated data bots that crawl the Internet mining email addresses that are then used to send out the bulk email that is commonly referred to as spam.  No one wants an email inbox crammed full with unsolicited spam.

I subscribe to many, many blogs and I’m signed up in several social networks (Facebook, Myspace, Xanga, Delicious, Stumble Upon, Blogging Zoom, and more); yet, I never get unsolicited email.  What am I doing that protects me from spam?

Avoid Spam 

Well, I use most of the recommendations on Top 5 Most Effective Tips to Avoid Getting Spam Altogether which lists:

  1. Use disposable email addresses.  I have an email address that I use for signing up for web services.   If I ever start receiving spam, that email will be history.  Obviously, my disposable email address does not use any part of my name.
  2. Don’t fill in the third-party contact boxes.
  3. Disguise your email address in newsgroups, forums, blog comments, chats.  I have never tried this suggestion, but I will from now on.  The recommendation is to put an extension on your email address that a human can recognize and erase.

Get Rid of Spam 

With my disposable email address, I’m prepared to deal with spam.  However, why haven’t I received any spam in the many years that I have been sharing my email address?   I have to look at my friend’s email to learn about those “special” offers from the Nigerian consulate.

Actually, I do get spam in my Yahoo bulk email folder.  I just don’t look at it.  I empty it without even taking a peek.  Okay, I quickly glance through to look for senders who were misplaced in the Spam folder.   And then, I empty the bulk file folder.  I don’t open email whose sender I don’t recognize.  This isn’t because I fear identity theft.  I do fear getting a computer virus.

Identity Theft

So, should I fear online identity theft, also known as phishing?  Identity theft can take place online, but thieves also use lots of other methods to get your personal information including: dumpster diving; skimming; change of address; old-fashioned stealing, and pretexting.  You should take steps to protect your identity in all situations.  Carefully read and follow the recommendations in the Federal Trade Commission’s Take Charge: Fighting Back Against Identity Theft.

To avoid getting hooked by phishing scams, follow the FTC’s guidelines for safeguarding your identity:

  • If you get an email or pop-up message that asks for personal or financial information, do not reply.And don’t click on the link in the message, either. Legitimate companies don’t ask for this information via email. If you are concerned about your account, contact the organization mentioned in the email using a telephone number you know to be genuine, or open a new Internet browser session and type in the company’s correct Web address yourself. In any case, don’t cut and paste the link from the message into your Internet browser — phishers can make links look like they go to one place, but that actually send you to a different site.
  • Area codes can mislead. Some scammers send an email that appears to be from a legitimate business and ask you to call a phone number to update your account or access a “refund.” Because they use Voice Over Internet Protocol technology, the area code you call does not reflect where the scammers really are. If you need to reach an organization you do business with, call the number on your financial statements or on the back of your credit card. In any case, delete random emails that ask you to confirm or divulge your financial information.
  • Use anti-virus and anti-spyware software, as well as a firewall, and update them all regularly. Some phishing emails contain software that can harm your computer or track your activities on the Internet without your knowledge.Anti-virus software and a firewall can protect you from inadvertently accepting such unwanted files. Anti-virus software scans incoming communications for troublesome files. Look for antivirus software that recognizes current viruses as well as older ones; that can effectively reverse the damage; and that updates automatically.A firewall helps make you invisible on the Internet and blocks all communications from unauthorized sources. It’s especially important to run a firewall if you have a broadband connection. Operating systems (like Windows or Linux) or browsers (like Internet Explorer or Netscape) also may offer free software “patches” to close holes in the system that hackers or phishers could exploit.
  • Don’t email personal or financial information.Email is not a secure method of transmitting personal information. If you initiate a transaction and want to provide your personal or financial information through an organization’s website, look for indicators that the site is secure, like a lock icon on the browser’s status bar or a URL for a website that begins “https:” (the “s” stands for “secure”). Unfortunately, no indicator is foolproof; some phishers have forged security icons.
  • Review credit card and bank account statements as soon as you receive them to check for unauthorized charges. If your statement is late by more than a couple of days, call your credit card company or bank to confirm your billing address and account balances.
  • Be cautious about opening any attachment or downloading any files from emails you receive, regardless of who sent them. These files can contain viruses or other software that can weaken your computer’s security.
  • Forward spam that is phishing for information to spam@uce.govand to the company, bank, or organization impersonated in the phishing email. Most organizations have information on their websites about where to report problems.
  • If you believe you’ve been scammed, file your complaint at ftc.gov, and then visit the FTC’s Identity Theft website at www.consumer.gov/idtheft. Victims of phishing can become victims of identity theft. While you can’t entirely control whether you will become a victim of identity theft, you can take some steps to minimize your risk. If an identity thief is opening credit accounts in your name, these new accounts are likely to show up on your credit report. You may catch an incident early if you order a free copy of your credit report periodically from any of the three major credit bureaus. See www.annualcreditreport.com for details on ordering a free annual credit report.

For more online safety information, and an excellent internet glossary, see Site-Seeing on the Internet: A Traveler’s Guide to Cyberspace, a publication from the FTC.

Bottom line, subscribing to blogs does not put you at risk for identity theft.   There is never any reason to share your personal or financial information when you subscribe to a blog.  Also, there is no reason to fear exchanging email addresses with friends.  Just don’t include your social security number or bank account information.  In any case, why would you?

Subscribe to receive On Living By Learning articles by email.  Click this link.  Don’t worry, it’s free and phishing safe.

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

PreSchool Mama January 9, 2008 at 5:32 pm

I actually belong to the other brigade – the ones who think that spam doesn’t happen to them. I am being careful from now on, however.

The dummy email ID for commenting idea is brilliant. I just changed my email ID here!

livingbylearning January 9, 2008 at 5:56 pm

And the dummy email ID worked! Thanks for testing it out.

Brian January 9, 2008 at 9:08 pm

Hi,
What a great post! I’ll be recommending it to a lot of people.
BTW, I’m Brian, from The Math Mojo Chronicles. You blogzoomed me. Thanks for that. I just clicked on you at blogzoom, and it sent me here.

Besides MathMojo, I occasionally put up info on Web 2.0 and other computer stuff, but for non-geeks. I’ve got a couple of YouTube vids up about how to tweak disposable g-mail addresses. You might want to give them a look-see. I’ve consolidated some of them on a Squidoo page at http://www.squidoo.com/web20nongeek
If you scroll down to the section on G-Mail, you’ll find a good, easy, free (and sneaky-cool) way to optimize disposable e-mail addresses.

Keep up the good blogging!

Yours truly,

Brian Foley (a.k.a. Professor Homunculus at http://MathMojo.com )

GG January 9, 2008 at 11:41 pm

Great article. On my blog people just started using comments–it has taken over two years because many don’t understand the Internet, blogs, or anything more involved.

I have a couple of different disposable email addresses, too. Way back when (1995) my email was all over the place without a problem. It wasn’t until a few years ago that spam became a problem.

When my email on my website forms gets picked up, I just forward that email to a spam box and start fresh.

You included a bunch of great tips and resource links and I hope that helps a lot of people who stumble on your article.

livingbylearning January 10, 2008 at 1:06 pm

It’s interesting how a lot of us think we’re computer savvy because we’ve been using computers for so many years. However, many of us never learn how to do new things online.

It takes being willing to take a chance and explore by clicking everything to keep up with the new opportunities.

GG: Thanks for the encouragement! So, I’ve got to wait two years before I can hope for comments? Oh,no!

parents.ourchool.ca January 10, 2008 at 2:52 pm

More people then we think are nervous and skeptical about using the Internet for online communication and collaboration. Newspapers print grim stories to sell papers. Good news about blogging is rare. Even the most educated are wary.

Adrian Keys January 11, 2008 at 10:52 pm

They say online commerce is taking over but the people who have had shaky fingers trying to complete a purchase online will identify a lot with this post…

Karen (Karooch from Scraps of Mind) January 14, 2008 at 6:40 pm

Great post Sandra. And some excellent ideas.
I am fortunate to have a very good spam filter on my email server ( I know the owner and his motto in life is “trust no one”). So I only get one or two spam mails that sneak into my inbox.

Joe Cheray January 15, 2008 at 10:53 am

I do the same thing with my spam or bulk folders I just hit delete all forever and they all go bye bye. I am really not too worried about the email thing. I figure someone can just as easily do the same thing with other forms of identity that I have. Trust me if someone wants your information bad enough they will find a way to get it.

I had an ex who memorized my SSN in order to get electrical service in my name when he moved in with another woman after we split. No one questioned whether or not he was who he claimed to be- Namely ME.

There is a movie coming out called Untraceable that is coming out soon that shows how someone can really get into the information super highway to use it for really messed up stuff. This is not too far from the reality of today.

Even with the Movie “Enemy of the State” you can see how people used every means of technology to track Will Smith’s character.

Big Brother is here and He isn’t going to be going anywhere anytime soon.

Cindy January 16, 2008 at 10:32 am

Great Article. In my blogging topics to Moms, I know this is a major roadblock that I have to overcome. Just talking to my friends, I realize how much they fear about online communication. I love your analogy with Hal. I have found that really good Sci-Fi fiction isn’t too far off from the realities of the future. It’s what makes advancement’s in society fascinating to watch. This is definitely going into my Worthy Links for Moms post.

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